Calif. lawmakers fight Schwarzenegger over crowded prisons

They are on a path to release fewer than the 27,300 inmates the governor's plan would. But Republicans still see a threat to public safety.

Office of the Governor/Handout/Reuters
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, right, toured the California Institution for Men with acting Warden Aref Fakhoury in Chino, Calif., on Aug. 19. A riot occurred there last week, even as the state attempted to address prison overcrowding statewide.

The push to reform California’s overcrowded prison system – filled to nearly twice its intended capacity – is once again butting up against political reality.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to trim the state correctional budget by $1.2 billion and relieve the system of 27,300 prisoners over the next year is being blocked by state lawmakers. Some Democrats say it doesn’t go far enough. Some Republicans say it amounts to a public safety nightmare.

“You do have a lot of hysteria that was whipped up. We were going to release all these people, and that scares folks,” Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a Democrat from Los Angeles, told reporters after the Assembly convened at midnight Thursday without passing the plan, which was approved earlier in the day by the Senate over heated Republican opposition.

Speaker Bass says a new plan – with the most controversial items stripped from the governor’s proposal – will be introduced Monday. It removes Mr. Schwarzenegger’s provision to let nonviolent offenders serve the last year of sentences under house arrest and removes sentencing reforms that raise the threshold for which property crimes are considered felonies.

Instead, the Democrats’ proposal would give inmates sentencing credits after the successful completion of rehabilitation programs or vocational classes. Those early-release credits could amount to four months taken off an inmate’s sentence.

The Assembly’s plan also keeps a proposal to create a commission to review state sentencing guidelines but adds greater law-enforcement representation on the new panel.

Bass’s proposal would cut the state prison population by only about 17,000 over the next year. A federal judicial panel has ruled that California needs to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 over the next two years.

Earlier this month, a three-judge panel ordered the state to come up with a plan to reduce overcrowding in its 33 state prisons to meet constitutional standards of care for inmates. Currently, the prisons are at 195 percent of design capacity. The judges want to see a reduction to a maximum of 137.5 percent.

It’s this backdrop – coupled with a recent violent riot at a prison for men in Chino, Calif., blamed on overcrowding – that is motivating swift changes in the state’s prison system.

Some Republicans counter that the push to reduce prison populations is coming at the expense of public safety. Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth said Thursday that the problem in California’s prisons is not due to inmate overcrowding but is a result of financial mismanagement.

What’s more, he says, proponents of prison reform are trying to “exploit California’s fiscal crisis” to pass “a dangerous liberal agenda.” He says the prison system is working and that current sentencing laws are keeping Californians safer.

But in a press conference Thursday morning, Schwarzenegger said the Aug. 8 prison riot in Chino, in which inmates “went absolutely berserk,” was a result of overcrowding.

He acknowledged the political risk lawmakers face when voting for a plan that would result in the release of thousands of inmates, but “the whole prison system is collapsing and we are losing control over the system.”
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