SACRAMENTO — After an impassioned debate over the cost and benefit of California's massive prison system, the state Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a controversial bill to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on state lockups by reducing the time lower-level inmates would spend behind bars and on parole.
But the proposal remained stalled in the Assembly, where a host of lawmakers vying for higher office refused to take a vote that could portray them as soft on crime, and Speaker Karen Bass kept her members late into the night in an effort to push through a watered-down version.
The discord came as the state faces a looming deadline from three federal judges to produce a plan to reduce overcrowding by taking about 40,000 inmates out of a system that now holds nearly 170,000.
Democratic leaders and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have been pushing a proposal that could help satisfy the judges and save money to shore up California's shaky budget.
They would cut the prison population by 37,000 by the middle of 2011 with measures that would shift resources toward higher-risk inmates and parolees. They would reduce the time lower-level offenders and those who show evidence of rehabilitation would serve behind bars and scale back their parole supervision. Officials hope that would cut down on the 70% rate at which California inmates return to prison, one of the highest in the nation.
Republicans and some law enforcement groups, who characterize the plan as "early release" and "get out of jail free," warned that it would reverse the significant drops in crime of recent years.
"We will see mayhem on the streets of California," Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater) told colleagues on the Senate floor Thursday.
The legislation was needed to implement nearly half of the $1.2 billion in cuts that the governor and legislative leaders included in last month's budget deal without specifying how they would be made. Administration officials say they can make the rest of the reductions by cutting administrative expenses and transferring illegal immigrant prisoners to federal custody.
In a long and contentious Senate session, the prisons plan was described as historic by both advocates and opponents. Democrats said it represented a long-needed change to a relentlessly punitive criminal justice system that has spun out of control, to the point that the state pays more for incarceration than for higher education. They chastised Republicans for fear-mongering.
Republicans, who accused Democrats of using the state's fiscal crisis to advance a liberal political agenda, said the bill would undo decades of legislation intended to protect Californians -- what they called government's prime responsibility.
"This is not about abdicating responsibility; it is about finally assuming responsibility," responded Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). She went on to recount her own experience surviving a violent 1995 robbery, after which her 9-year-old daughter, who witnessed the crime, suffered nightmares and needed therapy.
"There are some things you never forget," Romero said, her voice rising. "Don't tell me, when I stand up and call for reforms in our prison system, that I am soft on crime."
The bill, ABX3 14, if approved by the Assembly and signed by Schwarzenegger, would allow certain elderly and infirm inmates and those with a year or less left to serve to finish their sentences on home detention with an ankle bracelet, subject to approval by state prison administrators. Republicans said that would not be effective.
"I suggest to you that you don't forget to turn on your porch light," Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) said. "And I certainly recommend that you lock the front and back doors."
Some crimes, such as petty theft with a prior conviction and check kiting, would no longer be prosecuted as felonies, meaning offenders would go to county jail rather than prison. Property crime sentences would be reduced. Parolees who committed lower-level crimes would no longer be sent back to prison for parole violations.
The legislation would also create a commission to review sentencing for all crimes, with recommendations to be submitted by 2012 and to take effect by 2013 unless the Legislature and governor rejected them.
The Senate passed the bill 21 to 19, with four Democrats joining all 15 Republicans in opposing it.
In the Assembly, where many Democrats are running for office and three are campaigning for attorney general, Bass (D-Los Angeles) was unable to secure the 41 votes needed for approval, legislative sources said. So lawyers were drafting an alternative that would eliminate provisions for home detention and the changing of some crimes to misdemeanors.
The loss of those measures would open a $220-million hole in the budget, however. It was not clear whether the governor would sign the weaker version. He met Thursday evening with Bass and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to discuss the situation.
After they made deep cuts in education and social services last month, lawmakers' difficulty in reducing the prisons budget highlighted the explosiveness of an issue that has long paralyzed Sacramento, to the frustration of the federal courts that are threatening to act within a month if the state does not.
"It's so hyped, so emotional, and can be so twisted for political advantage," said Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), "that we're not able to do our job."
Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this report.