Once again, politics gets in way of reform

Published online on Monday, Aug. 24, 2009
By Dan Walters / The Sacramento Bee

Governor may shy from prison bills

SACRAMENTO -- With the legislative session heading into the home stretch, an ambitious plan to overhaul California's criminal sentencing structure is facing dim prospects in the Governor's Office.
Two bills are circulating in the Legislature that would create a California sentencing commission with the ability to change the length of prison terms. But a spokesman for Gov. Schwarzenegger suggested it is highly unlikely that either commission bill will get signed into law. "We're open to debate, but the governor has serious reservations about what's being proposed in the Legislature," Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said in an interview. "He thinks that final authority [on sentencing laws] should be with elected officials who are accountable to the people."

Prison bill hits resistance
SACRAMENTO -- Legislation that would save money and reduce prison crowding remained stuck in the state Assembly Friday as law enforcement lobbyists tried to kill a proposed commission to review sentencing guidelines. The Senate narrowly approved the bill Thursday, but the plan is being rewritten in hopes of winning support from Assembly members in a vote as soon as Monday.
Meantime, Valley law enforcement officials are calling for lawmakers to slow down and allow time for the bill to get more scrutiny.

EDITORIAL: Address prison overcrowding
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to suffer from multiple-policy disorder on prison overcrowding.
On one side, the governor declares a prison state of emergency and says it is absolutely possible to reduce the prison population without harming public safety. Then he presents a plan to the court that says population reductions "cannot be accomplished without compromising public safety."
His latest proposal is make-believe and won't fool anyone. The aim is supposed to be to get California's 33 prisons down to 137.5% of capacity over two years. That requires going from 150,000 today to 110,000 inmates. Those who meander along the middle of the political road often find themselves ambushed in the crossfire between red-blooded conservatives and true-blue liberals.
Arnold Schwarzenegger often walks through political no-man's land, denounced by those to his right as a RINO -- Republican in name only -- and those to his left as a troglodyte, with his proposal to reduce the state's prison population an excellent example. The prisons contain almost twice as many inmates as they were designed to house, federal courts already have seized control of inmate medical care, and judges have ordered the state to reduce the prisons by more than 40,000 inmates. Meanwhile, the latest version of the perpetually unbalanced state budget envisions a $1.2 billion reduction in prison spending. Schwarzenegger has proposed to lower the inmate population by 27,000 by releasing some low-risk felons into alternative custody, diverting more prison-bound felons into local facilities, changing parole standards and creating a commission to overhaul sentencing guidelines. The Schwarzenegger plan, worked out with Democratic legislative leaders, was immediately denounced by Republicans and law enforcement groups as dangerous, but was cautiously embraced by prison reformers on the left. It made it through the state Senate last week by a bare-majority vote, with only Democrats supporting it. But then it was hung up in the Assembly because Speaker Karen Bass couldn't muster 41 Democratic votes as law enforcement groups ramped up their opposition.

Many of those Democrats are seeking new offices next year, some of them statewide offices, and they feared being denounced by police and prosecutor groups if they voted for the plan.
It is, in a sense, a revival of the soft-on-crime drives that worked so well for Republicans in the 1980s and early 1990s as they confronted Democrats in statewide contests and marginal legislative districts.
Bass wants to placate law enforcement critics while making enough of a dent in the prison population to meet the budget goal and pacify the federal judges, but it's a very difficult task.
When Democrats floated one revision that scaled back the releases and gave law enforcement representatives a veto power on decisions of the sentencing commission, the left-of-center prison reform erupted in anger. "This amendment will eliminate any independence of the proposed sentencing commission," said Ted Cassman, president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. "A single interest group should not be able to hold sentencing reform hostage in California." An Assembly vote has been postponed amid reports that the sentencing commission may be eliminated.

Dan Walters writes for The Bee’s Capitol bureau. E-mail: dwalters@sacbee.com; mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852.