Prison Plan Likely to Spark Fireworks

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It won't be the only proposal before the Legislature on Thursday, but it will definitely be the main event: a plan to save money and lower the population of California's prisons.

That plan, endorsed both by legislative Democrats, is expected to be heard first in the Senate and later Thursday in the Assembly. A spokesperson for Governor Schwarzenegger would only say that for now, administration support depends on whether the bill conforms to Schwarzenegger's prison reform framework.

The full 239-page bill was released Wednesday afternoon and covers a number of contentious issues. While its passage is more likely than not -- due to the fact that as a majority vote bill it only needs Democratic votes -- it's still expected to spark a fiery debate... both inside and outside the state Capitol.

"The current law returns at least 70% of paroled inmates back to overcrowded prisons," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in a written statement. "We have an opportunity to change those dreadful numbers for the better and save taxpayer’s money at the same time -- with no additional risk to public safety."

The proposals in ABX3 14 are estimated, when enacted, to save the beleaguered state budget $524.5 million. Add to that the $400 million in prisons savings called for in the February budget deal, and the savings that could supposedly be achieved by the governor acting on his own authority to reduce costs, and you get the $1.2 billion in reduced corrections spending in the 2009-2010 budget.

The single largest dollar amount of savings -- $198 million -- is believed to be through parole reform. The bill would send fewer parolees back to prison for minor violations, and would create what's called the Parole Reentry Accountability Program to allow prison officials to determine appropriate sanctions for parole violators.

The bill also counts a large amount of savings from changes to the sentencing process ($134 million). While that includes items like making some crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies, the debate will undoubtedly focus on the creation of a new sentencing commission -- an idea long been kicked around the Capitol but one on which consensus has remained elusive.

This bill creates what is called the California Public Safety Commission (see pg. 214), a 16-member body chaired by the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. 13 of the members will be able to vote on sentencing changes, and the panel -- mostly appointed by the governor -- is to be made up of law enforcement officials and criminal justice experts.

The selection of the three non-voting members is already one flashpoint for Republican opponents in the Legislature -- specifically because one slot is to be filled by an "ex-felon appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly." The other non-voting members are a crime victim (appointed by the governor) and either a county mental health director or expert in "offender treatment" (appointed by the Senate).

As for how the commission is to handle its duties, two passages stand out on a first read-through:

Consistent with Section 28, Article I of the California Constitution, sentencing rules shall reflect the principle that incarceration is appropriate for those who commit a violent offense and offenders who have a record indicating a pattern of regular or increasingly serious criminal conduct.</blockquote>

And a little later, this passage:

Presumptive sentences shall be proportionate to the gravitry of offenses, the harms done to crime victims, the potential deterrent effect of the penalty, and the blameworthiness of offenders, based upon the commission's collective judgment of appropriate punishments for ordinary cases of the kind governed by each presumptive sentence. Ranges of incarceration terms should be sufficiently narrow to express meaningful distinctions across categories of cases on grounds of proportionality, to promote reasonable uniformity in sentences imposed and served.

The sentencing commission proposal was quickly singled out by the California District Attorneys Association, whose letter today to Governor Schwarzenegger calls for lawmakers to "slow this process to allow for reasoned consideration and meaningful public input."

Stay tuned for a passionate day or two, with virtually all sides weighing in on how to fix California's prison system... and whether this plan represents the right fix.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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