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Schwarzenegger's prison reform burden

The Legislature's abysmal failure to ease inmate overcrowding shifts responsibility to the governor.

September 17, 2009

What state lawmakers failed to do last week on prisons, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be forced to do this week. Under pressure to cut $1.2 billion from the corrections budget, the Legislature came up at least $200 million short, so today the administration will announce its plan to finish the job. Then, on Friday, it will present its plan to cut the prison population by 40,000 inmates within two years to a panel of federal judges that has issued a court order to relieve overcrowding. Both of these things could have been accomplished more democratically by the Legislature, yet California seems to have reached a point at which its democracy barely functions.

The sanctimony with which Assembly members rejected a sensible prison bill that had earlier been passed by the Senate would shame an archbishop. Lawmakers decried sentencing reforms that have been recommended for more than a decade by experts, and branded as public safety threats reasonable plans to shift feeble and nonviolent inmates to community detention facilities. Few mentioned that the state had little choice; our prisons are jammed to 190% of capacity, leading to unconstitutionally cruel conditions and a soaring corrections budget. In the end, the Assembly passed its own prison package that doesn't achieve the court-ordered cuts.

By the end of the week, it will be apparent what all the posturing accomplished: nothing. That may suit lawmakers just fine -- they can blame the coming prison reforms on the federal courts rather than taking heat from voters for being insufficiently hard on criminals. But the episode is further evidence that if California's prison system is a national disgrace, its Legislature is a national laughingstock.

Perhaps it's not surprising that, in this environment, Schwarzenegger seems to be taking on the characteristics of a dictator. On Tuesday, he rejected the Legislature's plan to promote renewable energy and said he'd impose his own by executive fiat. He's on surer legal ground when it comes to the prisons because his actions will be backed by the federal court. But it's dismaying to watch the state's democratic procedures break down so thoroughly.

As long as he now appears to be king of California, we humbly beseech our lord and Terminator to finally do the right thing by the prisons. His proposal to the court should be modeled on the one approved by the Senate and include a commission to review the unsustainable determinate sentencing system. Meanwhile, it's time to drop the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of the federal court order so we can get on with the business of fixing the prisons and out of the habit of defending the indefensible.

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