Assembly to unveil revamped prisons plan

 Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, has dramatically altered a prison proposal passed by the state Senate, removing some of the most contentious provisions of the Senate bill – including a plan for a new commission to set sentencing guidelines.


While taking the sentencing commission proposal out of the Assembly prison plan scheduled to be voted on this week, Bass said she has not given up hope of creating such a panel through a separate piece of legislation this year.


"Work is moving forward on a revised plan to increase public safety, improve the effectiveness of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and reduce state budget costs," Bass said in a statement Monday.  "There were a number of calls and meetings throughout the weekend with various stakeholders, including law enforcement.  Those conversations are continuing. When we arrive at a responsible plan that can earn the support of the majority of the Assembly and makes sense to the people of California, we will take that bill up on the Assembly floor."


The sentencing commission was among the most controversial provisions of the Senate prison plan. But on Monday, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said “a real sentencing commission, with teeth, is my top priority” for corrections legislation.


Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost said Monday that the Senate leader would like to see any legislation passed by the Assembly “realize the same dollar figure in savings as the Senate bill.”


The bill passed last week by the Senate, AB 14 XXX would save the state an estimated $600 million, according to an analysis of the bill. But the Assembly seemed poised to make key changes that would reduce those savings by about $220 million.


Among the other changes expected to be made by the Assembly would be the elimination of a provision that would change some crimes which can be either felonies or misdemeanors –known as “wobblers” – exclusively to misdemeanors. The Assembly bill expected to come up for a vote this week would leave the state’s wobbler law unchanged.


Assembly Democrats also balked at a provision in the Senate bill that would allow some sick and elderly inmates to finish their sentences under house arrest.


Those two components of the Senate bill were intended to ease prison overcrowding and help the cash-strapped state save money. Earlier this year, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a budget revision plan that eliminated $1.2 billion from the corrections budget. $400 million of that has already been realized through Schwarzenegger’s line-item vetoes earlier this year. The Legislature left the details over the balance of that savings  because the corrections policy fight is so contentious.


Although the prison bill only needs a simple majority to pass the Assembly, politics has complicated the bill’s passage. Six Democrats in the Assembly are seeking statewide office, and more than a dozen others are running for state Senate or are facing reelection in Assembly districts that are considered potentially competitive.


Democrats, especially those facing tough election fights, have been reluctant to cast any vote that could be seen as a soft-on-crime vote.


But even some liberals have balked at provisions of the plan. Among them, Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, voiced their opposition to the Senate bill.


One of those Democrats running statewide, attorney general candidate Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, said he would support a prison reform package without the wobbler and alternative sentencing language. He also said he could support a sentencing commission only if the recommendations were non-binding, and had to be adopted by the Legislature before becoming law.


“We have a very rare opportunity to make some much needed reforms,” he said.


Under the plan passed by the Senate, the commission recommendations would automatically become law unless a bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor reversing the commission recommendations.


Under the measure passed by the Senate, a new commission would be comprised of 13 voting members. including the corrections secretary, chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the state public defender. The governor would make eight appointments to the board. The chief justice would make the other two appointments, both of whom must be retired judges.


Schwarzenegger said he would only support a commission if all of the appointed and voting members were gubernatorial appointees.


The commission remains a top legislative priority for both Bass and Steinberg. Sources in both offices expect the issue to remain one of the major policy bargaining chips as the end of the legislative year approaches. The Legislature is scheduled to recess for the year on Sept. 11.

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