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After delay, Assembly to take up prison measure

The scaled-down package falls $220 million short of the $1.2 billion in cuts to prisons in last month's budget deal.

September 01, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — After more than a week of political hand-wringing, the state Assembly approved a slimmed-down proposal to cut spending on state prisons Monday, without a vote to spare. But the revised package would create a hole in California's budget and exposes the state to the ire of federal judges demanding a plan to reduce inmate overcrowding.

State Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, whose members ratified a more expansive and controversial package of corrections cuts 12 days ago, called the Assembly plan incomplete and indicated that he would not immediately hold a vote on it. Senate approval is required before the measure can go to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk.

Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said he would work with the governor and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) on "further reforms that will strengthen our criminal justice system."

"The Assembly took a good first step today, but it's not a complete package," Steinberg said in a statement Monday.

The governor's spokesman, Aaron McLear, also reserved judgment, saying in a statement that "there are still questions about how it addresses our overcrowding crisis and our budget."

The Assembly package, negotiated in consultation with law enforcement groups, would reduce parole supervision for low-level offenders and give inmates six weeks off prison terms for completing rehabilitation programs.

But other components -- home detention for some inmates, some sentencing reductions, a commission to examine the state's sentencing laws -- were removed after prosecutors and police objected. Republicans unanimously voted against the plans in both houses, warning of a public safety catastrophe.

The Senate plan was projected to reduce the population of state prisons by 37,000 over two years, a number close to the 40,000 required by federal judges overseeing two inmate lawsuits. The potential effect of the Assembly plan on overcrowding is unclear, but legislative officials say it would fall well shy of what the judges are seeking in a plan the state must submit by Sept. 18. If state officials fail to come up with a plan, the judges could impose one.

During a spirited two-hour debate, opponents of the bill said it would have devastating consequences for California communities, while supporters said it would protect public safety by allowing the state to focus greater resources on more dangerous parolees.

"We might as well set off a nuclear bomb in California with what we are doing with this bill," said Assemblyman Jeff Miller (R-Corona), while fellow Republican Joel Anderson of San Diego told Democrats that he did not want "your state-sanctioned jailbreak in my backyard."

Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) countered that Republicans should be "ashamed" for "telling Californians that we're releasing prisoners and they're coming after our daughters."

Juan Arambula of Fresno, who is not registered with a political party, said the Assembly's proposal was only a start toward fixing a prison system that recycles criminals and fails to rehabilitate them.

"They leave, by and large, without education and no employment prospects," he said. "They serve their time and they are out on the streets. They commit another crime, and they go back in."

The governor and lawmakers in July's budget deal agreed to slash $1.2 billion in the coming year from the $10-billion-a-year prison system. More than half that can be implemented without legislative approval. The Senate's package was projected to cut nearly $525 million.

Administration officials estimate that the Assembly's version would cut $230 million less in the first year. Over three years, the lost savings would total $1.5 billion, according to Schwarzenegger's aides.

Bass told reporters that the bill had caused "angst" among her members, many of whom are running for higher office. It reflected "as much of a consensus as we could have reached," she said, adding that she would seek additional prison cuts before the legislative session ends next week. But in a subtle criticism of her Senate counterparts, she suggested that they had failed before taking action Aug. 20 to get adequate input from local law enforcement.

The groups "expressed an awful lot of frustration with the process and felt as though they were left out, which is why they were so opposed to the Senate version of the bill," Bass said.

Paul Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union representing police officers, said the Assembly plan, while not desirable, was "the best that we could get," given the budget crisis and the federal court order. The Senate version was "unacceptable," he said.

Weber said Assembly members were responsive to the union's position, and the group also let them know that protecting public safety was a "silver bullet" for its support.

"We're not going to endorse people who have a stance against public safety," he said.

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