California Assembly passes diluted prison reform bill

Lawmakers stripped out crucial reforms such as a proposal for an independent panel to review tough sentencing guidelines.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In this May 20 file photo, several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at San Quentin prison in San Quentin, Calif.
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California lawmakers took another step Monday toward easing the vast overcrowding in state prisons, which federal judges have said are too congested to meet inmates' constitutional rights.

But some critics say one of the reforms most needed to fix the problem with the state's correctional system was stripped out of the bill the California State Assembly narrowly passed in a 41-35 vote.

Lawmakers removed a controversial provision to establish a commission to review state sentencing guidelines – some of the most rigid in the country.

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"The very term 'sentencing commission' has become pretty toxic in California politics," says Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University. "It's often alleged that they take sentencing power away from the legislature."

The Assembly plan, while it does not go as far as Governor Schwarzenegger would like in cutting prison spending or reducing inmate populations, still makes some significant reforms:

• It reduces the state's 155,000 inmate population by 17,000 over the next year.

• It reduces the number of prisoners under parole supervision following their prison terms.

• It raises the threshold for what crimes are considered felonies.

• It gives inmates the chance to reduce sentences by completing educational or rehabilitation courses.

"While the early releases are important, that still doesn't address the engine of growth that are the sentencing laws," says Ryan King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group that promotes sentencing reform. "There are too many people going into prison and they are staying there too long."

Republicans have hailed the state's tough sentencing guidelines as effective crime-fighting tools that keep citizens safe and violent offenders off the streets.

The debate over sentencing and parole reform grew more heated over the past week after parolee and registered sex offender Phillip Garrido was arrested with the kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard. Some lawmakers claimed the prison bill would free more violent criminals.

But even the most sweeping of California's reform proposals would continue to keep violent criminal and sex offenders under the purview of state parole officers.

Still, it was the provision for a sentencing commission that was the no-go for most legislators.

Though the Senate's version of the prison reform bill included the commission, the idea met fierce resistance from Republicans and some law enforcement groups as the Assembly debated the prison package last week.

Republican lawmakers – who have opposed any bill that would let inmates out of jail early – charged that the commission amounted to a Democratic attempt to go soft on crime.

Some Democrats said the commission would have too much power. Recommendations from such a panel, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and prison officials support, would have been implemented unless legislators acted to stop them.

"That was one of the major sticking points," says Mr. King. Indeed, once Democratic Assembly leaders struck the sentencing commission from the bill and made other changes, law enforcement groups dropped their opposition.

But such panels – which have been successful in states such as Illinois, South Carolina, and Kentucky – more often provide "nonpartisan research and economic analysis of any proposed legislation, says Professor Weisberg.

It remains to be seen if the Senate will OK the Assembly's bill as it is $230 million short of the governor's proposed $1.2 billion cut in prison funding.

Also looming over the prison issue is a deadline imposed by a federal judicial panel for the state to come up with a plan to cut its prison population. The justices say California needs to lower its inmate population by 40,000 over the next two years.

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