Prison plan loses sentencing panel

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass on Monday removed plans to create a commission to reevaluate California's sentencing laws from a package intended to cut spending on state prisons, saying she expected to win approval for the revised proposal later this week.

It was unclear whether Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) -- senators ratified a $525-million package of spending reductions Thursday -- would go along with the Assembly's limited version. The sentencing review is one of Steinberg's priorities, and his house would have to approve the Assembly's changes before the legislation could go to the governor.

The Assembly also cut other provisions from the package that would leave a nearly $200-million hole in the state budget.

"Whatever product comes out of the Assembly, we want to make sure it improves public safety, reforms the system and saves the same dollar amount as what we sent them," said Alicia Trost, Steinberg's spokeswoman.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who backs the Senate proposal, would have to review the Assembly's plan and its effect on the budget before deciding whether to support it, spokesman Matt David said.

The prison proposals need only a majority of lawmakers' votes to pass, but some of the Democrats who control the Assembly have so far been unwilling to support them. Republicans who are the minority in both houses oppose the plans, citing public safety concerns.

A month has passed since state leaders approved a budget with $1.2 billion in prison cuts, about half of which needed further legislative approval to start saving money. The hundreds of millions of dollars in savings likely to be lost to the state through lawmakers' delays and changes to the package would have to be made up elsewhere.

The prison package stalled in the Assembly last week as wary Democrats, many of whom are running for higher office, refused to go along with the version passed by the Senate. That plan would reduce the prison population by 37,000 inmates over two years. Each inmate costs $49,000 a year to house.

Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, last week removed provisions to allow some inmates to finish their terms on home detention and to reduce penalties for some crimes. On Monday, still without the needed votes, she said she would take out the sentencing commission proposal, which had been opposed by local law enforcement leaders, and put the rest of the package up for a vote Wednesday or Thursday.

Bass said the Assembly would consider the commission later in the legislative session, which ends next month.

"We do believe we will reach agreement on it, but we didn't want to jam it through if we need to make some changes," Bass said.

Both the Assembly and Senate plans would change California's stringent parole policy by removing supervision from low-level offenders. The Assembly would grant four months off prison terms for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs, more than the six weeks the Senate gave.

Assemblyman Alberto Torrico (D-Newark), one of three Assembly Democrats running for attorney general who have opposed the prison proposal, said that with the revisions made by Bass he would probably vote for it. He said he opposed the commission because its recommendations would automatically have taken effect if the Legislature and governor failed to reject them.

"The notion that the Legislature would not be required to vote on a sentencing commission proposal, I just think it's real problematic," Torrico said.


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