Locked up

What else has to go wrong before California lawmakers will solve the state's prison crisis? Solid advice issued over the course of more than a decade by blue-ribbon commissions has been ignored; directives from federal judges to reduce the population of our overcrowded prisons are challenged in court rather than obeyed; and even when the state is faced with a wrenching income shortfall that demands $1.2 billion in cuts to the corrections budget, the Legislature seems incapable of doing the right thing.

On Thursday, lawmakers debated a package of prison measures designed to trim both the budget and the inmate population while embracing policies that criminal justice experts have long proposed to make the corrections system more efficient without endangering public safety. The bill was narrowly approved in the state Senate. That glimmer of hope was quickly dashed by the Assembly, where the bill stalled.

Most of the package wasn't new -- it had been proposed last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and included measures to repair the dysfunctional parole system, send low-risk offenders to community centers for the last 12 months of their terms and give inmates credit for participating in drug-rehab or job-training programs. The measures would have cut the prison population by an estimated 27,000. Democratic leaders in the Senate, with the governor's blessing, added one other element to Schwarzenegger's plan: creation of a sentencing commission that could streamline and improve California's byzantine sentencing laws.

It's a given that every Republican in the Legislature opposes the package; the state GOP's stance on criminal justice issues is, after all, molded by talk radio hosts who enhance their ratings with fear-inducing rants about newly released prisoners flooding the streets of California. Such a party can hardly be expected to embrace complex ideas on corrections policy, no matter how successful they have proved in other states. Yet Republicans are a minority in both houses -- it is Assembly Democrats, notably a handful of representatives who face tight reelection contests or plan to run for higher office, who are standing in the way of sensible reform.

They aren't making Californians safer. The sentencing and parole fixes in the package would change the way inmates are assessed and supervised so that scarce law enforcement resources could be focused on the most dangerous criminals. California's corrections system is in crisis because the state is unique nationwide in its failure to impose such assessments. In other states that have done so, crime rates have fallen.

The Assembly is expected to take up the bill again Monday after heavily amending it to weaken the package, lower the inmate population reductions to 17,000 and reduce the savings by $200 million. This would fall far short of a federal court order to cut the prison count by 40,000 and would all but assure mandated early release of prisoners down the road. Moreover, at the rate it's headed, California may soon spend more on corrections than on higher education. Now that's a crime.

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