Jailhouse Blues

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As we reported in this morning's radio story for The California Report, yesterday's action (and inaction) by the Legislature on a major prison reform bill fell victim to one of the essential truths in politics: a deal's not done until it's done.

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And this one wasn't done... which is why we all get to come back Monday and try again.

To casual observers, the meltdown seemed awfully similar to the Assembly meltdown in the final hours of the budget revision debate last month: a deal crafted by legislative leaders and Governor Schwarzenegger getting the thumbs down from rank-and-file legislators.

But the differences between then and now are important. For starters, there were no Republicans -- leaders or otherwise -- on board this time. The governor wasn't able to convince his party that the package of spending cuts, custody changes, and sentencing revisions was worth an 'aye' vote. Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, who appeared to find a lot of common ground with Schwarzenegger during the budget debate, called the prison reform plan during floor debate Thursday part of a "liberal agenda" on crime and punishment... no matter that the plan was largely crafted by an administration quick to point out its 'tough on crime' credentials.

Given the GOP blockade, the governor's role -- according to Assembly Speaker Karen Bass -- was to help sell the deal to law enforcement interest groups. Bass spoke a small group of us in the press who were still on the job as the lower house adjourned early this morning with no vote on either the original package ratified by the Senate or the alternative on which she spent all afternoon and evening crafting. She said "a lot of hysteria has been whipped up" over the original plan's changes.

By the end of the long day, it seemed that some of the law enforcement opposition was receding -- after provisions on alternate custody (house arrest, GPS monitoring) and more mandatory misdemeanors (removal of several so-called 'wobbler' crimes) were dropped. The revised bill, now slated for a vote on Monday, also tweaks the biggest reform of all: a new sentencing commission empowered to reduce or increase penalties for some crimes.

But if the Administration's task was to remove all of the law enforcement obstacles, then there's still work to do. There are an awful lot of Democrats in the Assembly who, for reasons of conscience or campaign 2010, refused to vote for the original prison bill. And the 'Plan B' didn't have the requisite 41 votes either by the time the curtain fell.

Even if it does get 41 Democrats by next week, it would have to now go back to the Senate for concurrence, where the 21 Dem senators who approved 'Plan A' might now be asking themselves why they stuck their necks out for the more controversial plan.

But even if all of that happens, there are major ramifications to the death of the original prison reform plan.

First, it's important to remember that all of the items carved out of the original plan were there for a reason. Assembly staffers say the modified plan will lower the population in California's bloated prisons by no more than 20,000 -- compared the original plan's 27,000 inmate reduction. Take the changes out to two years instead of just one, and the Senate/Schwarzenegger version was estimated to shrink the prison population by as many as 40,000. That may have very well satisfied the panel of three federal judges who have demanded the state take action... or they will. The 'Plan B', for all the political arm twisting, still may not stop the legal avalanche.

Then there's the never-ending state budget blues. The original prison plan, when added to February's budget cuts and gubernatorial plans to reduce prison spending, was a $1.2 billion part of the deficit solution written into law; the original bill, alone, was estimated to save as much as $600 million. But that was with those alternatives to prison cell custody and fewer crimes resulting in felony one-way tickets to the joint. The 'Plan B' version, say staffers, may come up as much as $200 million short (and that's assuming all of the original savings estimated were valid).

In some years, a $200 million gap in the California state budget may not be the end of the world. But this is no ordinary year; cuts a fraction of that size are forcing all kinds of shutdowns of state services. And if this plan becomes the new way to go on prisons, it's going to leave a lot of budget watchers -- and Californians -- wondering what happens next.

Note: Due to the late debate and, well, our paying jobs... the CapNotes podcast will return next week.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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