Senate narrowly OKs plan to revamp prison sentences

The Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a new prison sentencing commission as part of the Democrats' effort  to overhaul California's correctional system, but the controversial plan faced considerable opposition in the Assembly. The lower house took up the issue later that evening but recessed without taking action.

The Senate vote was 21-19, the bare majority required in the 40-member house, in favor of the commission, which would put together a new set of sentencing and parole rules within three years.

A key provision of the plan entails the prosecution of so-called "wobblers" as misdemeanors, a move intended to lower the number of people sent to state prison. Currently, wobblers can be misdemeanors or felonies, depending on prosecutors.

In the Assembly, the wobbler language was sparking concern, as was a provision allowing the commission's recommendations to become law unless rejected by both houses of the Legislature. Some Assembly Democrats want that language changed to require the commission's findings to be submitted to the Legislature for approval before taking effect.

The strongest opposition to the sentencing commission is coming from law enforcement groups led by PORAC, the Peace Officers' Research Association of California, a federation of about 650 state and federal law enforcement groups representing some 45,000 officers.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass has made approval of the sentencing commission a top legislative priority. Ironically, her top aide is a former PORAC official.

Opposition appeared to be developing in the Assembly as members, fearing public criticism if they favored the commission, weighed their future political plans. Four Democrats running for statewide office, one running for Congress and four others facing tough re-election fights next year all expressed concerns about the proposal.

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 gained the governor's support, and the package approved Thursday by the Senate reflected an agreement between Schwarzenegger and the Senate Democrats.

The 13-member commission would have eight appointees of the governor, plus the head of the prisons system, the state Supreme Court chief justice and the state public defender. The chief justice would make the other two appointments, both of whom must be retired judges.

"This has been part of the larger budget discussion that's been going on for weeks," said Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost. "We've been working with the administration for some time…," said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg.

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."

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: