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Democrats prepared for prison vote Thursday

*This story has been corrected from an earlier version

 

Legislative Democrats will push a commission to create a new system for prison sentences as part of Democrats’ prison overhaul plan, which will be voted on the floor of both houses Thursday.

 

The commission, which has been pushed for by liberal Democrats for years, has been a major rift between Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in recent years. But changes made this week over who controls the commission seem to have the governor's OK.

 

Democrats have shared that language with the administration, but some legislative Republicans said they had not even received the prison proposal details late Wednesday afternoon.

 

"I have not seen the bills," said Assembly Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo.  "Here, at 3:45 in the afternoon, I'm about to meet with my policy staff and some of my members, and now I understand we’ll be voting on a 250 page bill that we have not seen."  

 

A spokeswoman for Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Democrats have struck a deal with the administration and are prepared to vote on a prisons package Thursday.

 

“This has been part of the larger budget discssion that’s been going on for weeks,” said Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost. “We’ve been working with the administration for some time, and we’re prepared to take it up on the floor (Thursday).”

 

The governor has said he would support a sentencing commission if the governor were able to control the appointments to the panel. The administration also says the governor wants to empower a commission to make recommendations that would have the force of law.

 

"If there is an unelected, unaccountable sentencing commission to weaken California's laws, this will be one of the most historic jailbreaks in recorded memory," Blakeslee said.

 

Under a draft proposal circulating in the Capitol Wednesday, the new commission would be called the California Public Safety Commission. The panel would consist of 13 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.

 

 The bill calls for the commission to present a new set of parole and sentencing rules to the Legislature by June 1, 2012.

 Republicans have been extremely critical of a sentencing commission in the past. In an email last month to his members, Assembly Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, cited the sentencing commission plan as part of “ a radioactive corrections bill calling the commission plan among “the worst of the worst.”

 

The draft legislation implies the commission may increase penalties for the most dangerous offenders, while “expanding options for community-based sanctions for certain low-level, nonviolent offenders.”

 

The language states the new commission will “provide a reasoned, balanced and experienced perspective to achieve sentencing practices that are grounded in data and based on sound policy. 

 

The commission is not a new idea. In 2007, Sen. Gloria Romero pushed the idea through the state Senate. But the measure died in the Assembly, where it only received 37 votes.

 

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Among the Democrats who did not support the measure are nine members who are still in t
he Assembly. Among those nine are three candidates for state attorney general – Alberto Torrico, Pedro Nava and Ted Lieu and are unlikely to cast a vote that could be interpreted as a soft-on-crime vote during a statewide campaign. Other Democrats in marginal districts, including Alyson Huber, Marty Block and Manuel Perez, may find the commission vote a tough one to make.

 

In the past, the idea has been opposed by law enforcement groups and the district attorneys’ association.

 

This new proposal differs in some ways from Romero’s 2007 plan. Under this new proposal, the governor controls the majority of the appointments. Romero called for a 21-member commission. The governor only had five appointeee to the commission. The Assembly Speaker and Senate pro tem each had three appointments to the commission, under Romero’s plan.

 

Changes in sentencing laws may help the state meet new federal mandates to reduce the inmate population by 43,000. That ruling was handed down by a panel of three federal judges earlier this month. Both Gov. Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown criticized the federal decision, and Brown has appealed the ruling on the state's behalf.

Prison reform has been an explosive issue inside the Capitol. Last month, lawmakers scored $1.2 billion in savings from the prison budget, but deferred making a decision on details of how that savings would be realized. 

 

Democrats has considered taking up the prison budget as part of last month’s budget deal. That threatened to derail the entire budget proposal, when Assembly Republican Leader Blakeslee accused Democrats of breaking the handshake agreement made during Big 5 budget negotiations.

 

* An earlier version of this story indicated Ted Lieu and Alberto Torrico voted for a sentencing commission in 2007. Both voted in favor of proposed amendments to a sentencing commission bill, but voted against the final bill itself.


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