Veto of Early Release Bill Sought

Times Staff Writer

Eleven Assembly Democrats who helped secure passage of a bill last month to release certain prisoners early took another look at the fine print and on Thursday asked Gov. Gray Davis to veto their own work.

The lawmakers said they voted for the bill without realizing that it made prisoners convicted of some serious felonies eligible for early release. The bill, SB 15X, was aimed at saving $70 million in next year's budget.

The 11 Assembly members told Davis they "became aware that the drafting of the measure could allow for some prisoners to earn credits that we believe should not be eligible."

They asked the governor instead to sign a replacement bill, AB 17X, that would exclude from early release prisoners convicted of such crimes as felony stalking, felony elder abuse, poisoning a food or water supply and fleeing to California to avoid prosecution for a forcible sex crime in another state.

Assemblyman Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) said the original bill, at a glance, "looked like a harmless procedure to save some money."

"We felt they're already on a schedule to be released," he said. "Twenty-seven days is not going to make much of a difference if we can save several million dollars and preserve programs that really affect people."

Only after it passed, Calderon said, did he learn that some criminals convicted of serious crimes would also be eligible.

"We're looking at things very closely now," said Calderon. "You cannot rush the process."

Besides Calderon, Democratic Assembly members calling for the veto are Lois Wolk of Davis, Barbara Matthews of Tracy, Sarah Reyes of Fresno, Patty Berg of Eureka, George Nakano of Torrance, Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, Cindy Montanez of San Fernando, Rebecca Cohn of Saratoga, Christine Kehoe of San Diego and Juan Vargas of San Diego.

The original bill was part of a roughly $3-billion package of spending cuts approved by the Legislature, which is wrestling to make up at least $26 billion over the next 17 months. The bill would have allowed inmates to get out of prison, at most, 27 days early by giving them one day of credit for each day spent in a reception center waiting to be assigned to a state prison or waiting to be enrolled in a work program or educational class.

The plea from Assembly Democrats for a veto comes two weeks after Republicans researched the penal code and accused Democrats of trying to balance the budget by letting loose serious criminals.

In a Feb. 18 news conference, several Republican Assembly members with law enforcement backgrounds warned that the bill would give early release to criminals convicted of assault with a firearm, attempted arson and child abuse.

Democratic legislative staff members say the Republicans are wrong, and those categories of criminals were never eligible for boosted work-time credits under SB 15X. But they acknowledge that the Republicans were correct about criminals with other convictions, such as elder abuse.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), a former policeman and prosecutor, criticized the rushed way in which the bill was passed, with little debate. SB 15X passed the Assembly on Feb. 4 on a 42-38 vote without Republican support.

"Mistakes are being made in the Legislature because we have not been involved in the debate," said Spitzer at the February news conference. "This has got to stop."

A Davis spokesman said the governor has taken no position on SB 15X, which reached his desk Wednesday. The alternate bill, AB 17X, is pending in the Assembly.

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