Friday, August 28, 2009

BREAKING NEWS: CA Assembly Guts Inmate Release and Sentencing Reform Plan

Yesterday, the CA Assembly made so many changes to the Senate-approved Governor's plan to release 27,300 inmates and reform sentencing, that it is hardly recognizable. The Chron reports:

The changes would reduce the state's prison population by about 16,000 inmates instead of 27,000, and would save the state about $325 million instead of $525 million.

Set aside were some of the most controversial parts of the legislation, such as allowing sick and elderly inmates to finish their sentences at home or in community hospitals, where they would be monitored by GPS tracking devices, according to Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista (Los Angeles County).

The bill also put aside plans for creating a sentencing commission to revamp the state's rules on punishment and parole, an idea backed by many Senate Democrats including President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. The bill, in its original form, passed the Senate by a 21-19 vote last week.

The original package, negotiated in part by Bass, stalled in the Assembly late last week despite Democrats' strong majority in the lower house of the Legislature.

The revised bill eliminates changes to some crimes - such as writing bad checks and receiving stolen property - so that they are always charged as misdemeanors. The bill was revised to reset the grand theft threshold to $950, higher than the current $400, which was set in 1982, but significantly lower than the $2,500 that the Senate approved last week.

What's left in the bill are changes to the state's parole system so that some low- and moderate-risk offenders would not be subject to parole revocation; allowing certain felons who violate probation to serve time in county jails; and allowing the early release of inmates who complete certain rehabilitation programs such as earning GEDs.

This is, to say the least, very disappointing. We will follow up with a more thorough analysis later in the day. For now, we'll just point out two things:

1. This is proof that budget-based arguments, without a deep understanding of what is ailing the system, can only take us so far. OldThought is still around, and unsubstantiated public safety arguments can still win the day.

2. If the Prison Law Office needs any proof that the state is incapable of carrying out the appropriate and necessary decrowding plans, for the purposes of the Plata/Coleman appeal, this is it.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Your first takeaway is dead on. In TX we've had success with budget arguments, but ONLY when it's possible to provide a credible public safety meme to pair with them.

One idea that's worked here: "Strengthening probation" to handle more small-time offenders in the community (though drug courts, intensive probation caseloads, etc.) has been an approach that successfully earned bipartisan crossover support here, but it took a GOP committee chairman to successfully carry the message and it was a change in mentality that didn't happen overnight.

It's also a lot easier to get legislators to reduce the inflow on the front end (especially by reducing probation revocations, etc.) than to let people out who are already inside. There are a lot of different ways to skin this cat.

Hadar Aviram said...

Thanks for this comment, Gritsforbreakfast; we're very fortunate to have your take on the Texas system inform us.

The implication of what you say is that it was a mistake to tie the sentencing commission bill to the rest of the prison reform. It should have been sold as the "sane" and "public safety conscious" alternative to inmate release. It seems that the proposal did not benefit from being lumped with the rest of the decrowding proposals.