Friday, 21 August 2009

Calif. Assembly balks at early release of inmates

California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass plans to strip the most controversial provisions from a Senate-approved plan that would have trimmed the state's prison population by 27,000 inmates.

The Assembly version would keep about 10,000 more inmates behind bars and leave the state with a new, nearly $200 million budget hole, Bass said early Friday.

Bass said the new plan — to be considered Monday — would do away with proposals by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to allow home detention with electronic monitoring for inmates with less than 12 months to serve, who are over age 60 or who are medically incapacitated.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly will also reject the Republican governor's plan to lower sentences for certain property crimes to misdemeanors, making those offenders ineligible for prison. But the Assembly plan would let inmates earn up to four months of early release credits for completing educational, vocational and other rehabilitation programs, up from six weeks in a proposal narrowly approved Thursday in the state Senate.

Bass, a Democrat from Los Angeles, announced the new plan after she was unable to find enough Democratic votes to send the Senate plan to Schwarzenegger. Republicans remained adamantly against both versions of the package in both chambers.

"Some of my members thought it should have gone further, and others thought that it went too far," Bass told reporters after adjourning just before midnight. "You do have a lot of hysteria that was whipped up. We were going to release all these people, and that scares folks."

The Assembly's passage of an alternative plan would require the bill to go back to the Senate for its agreement next week.

Bass huddled with Schwarzenegger and Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento in the governor's office before she decided to alter the Senate plan.

The governor is "committed to working with the Legislature to pass a package that puts public safety first, avoids early release, and achieves the necessary budgetary savings," Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt David said after the meeting.

The administration previously said failure of the bill would force California to find other ways to release inmates, in part because federal judges this summer ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 over two years.

Schwarzenegger had sought the changes as part of his plan to cut $1.2 billion from corrections spending. The Senate approved the plan 21-19, but the dynamics are different in the Assembly. For instance, three Democratic Assembly members are planning to run for state attorney general next year. They are reluctant to vote for any bill that might make them appear soft on crime.

Republicans offered angry denouncements as the debate unfolded earlier Thursday on the Senate floor. They said provisions to reduce some crimes to misdemeanors, release certain inmates before they have completed their sentences and ease conditions for parole would be a threat to public safety.

Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, promised a future ballot initiative to repeal the bill if it becomes law.

The debate over prison spending and California's chronic inmate overcrowding took on renewed urgency when more than 1,000 inmates rioted Aug. 8 at the California Institution for Men in Southern California. The prison was designed to hold about half as many inmates, although investigators say they don't know if crowding helped spark the racially charged riot.

Thursday's debate was a holdover from the budget-balancing deal lawmakers and Schwarzenegger struck a month ago. They said at the time that cutting $1.2 billion from the corrections budget was part of their plan to close a deficit then estimated at $26 billion, but they delayed debate on the details until they returned this week from their summer break.

Bass said the Assembly would also make minor changes to the Senate's plan to establish a commission to review California's sentencing guidelines. Opponents fear its primary mission would be to determine whether some sentences could be lessened as a way to take pressure off an overcrowded prison system.

The Assembly will reject including an ex-felon as a nonvoting member, and add other representatives from law enforcement and community groups that help ex-felons, Bass said.

The commission's guidelines would be due by July 2012. The changes would take effect automatically unless they were rejected by the governor and a majority vote in the Legislature.

Source(The Associated Press)

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