Uncertain Fate for Prison Fix-Lite

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For those who wanted a quick fix to California's prison woes, some advice: don't hold your breath.

Eleven days after the state Senate narrowly approved a wide-ranging plan to change the prison system, the Assembly has now approved a much narrower version... one which seems destined to sit for a little while, as policy and politics matters are sorted out.

The Assembly debate which began, and ended, late on Monday afternoon with the bill getting the bare minimum 41 votes; all Republicans voted against it, joined by six Democrats, and three other Dems abstaining.

The debate felt familiar. Republicans insisted that the plan amounts to an early release of thousands of inmates who will be able to then continue their "criminality," in the words of Assemblymember Jim Nielsen (R-Redding).

But what was new was the obvious arms twisted by Democrats who wanted more.

"I personally like the Senate’s version better," said Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). "But my law enforcement likes the bill that we have (now)." The interim period between legislative votes on prison reform was marked by intense lobbying from law enforcement groups, almost all of which removed their formal opposition once the bill was trimmed down (the groups didn't actually endorse the plan, but rather -- in Capitol parlance -- "went neutral").

And trimmed down it was. Gone was the sentencing commission, an independent group to weigh punishments but whose ability to make changes without full legislative blessing was a fatal blow. Gone, too, was the plan for what was called "alternative custody," essentially moving some inmates from prison to situations like house arrest in an attempt to save money and other resources.

All of these deletions, and more, also mean the prison reform proposal falls short of the mark in budget savings. How short? Number crunchers in Governor Schwarzenegger's budget shop said today that the Assembly prison plan misses the $1.2 billion mark set in July's deficit deal by more than $233 million. And no one was churning out press releases today suggesting they had an alternate path towards finding that much cash elsewhere in the budget. But what about that successful state garage sale this past weekend? Not even close, folks.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the reaction in the Senate to the Assembly's low calorie prison bill was muted. Senate Democrats certainly wouldn't have come out and said the plan stinks. But there's no official timetable on a reconciliation vote in the upper house, either.

The official response from Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg came in a written statement: "The Assembly took a good first step today but it’s not a complete package. In the coming weeks, I look forward to working with (Assembly) Speaker Karen Bass and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on further reforms that will strengthen our criminal justice system."

The key phrase in that statement: "In the coming weeks." This one's not going to go away anytime soon.

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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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