Los Angeles County's top prosecutor says a budget proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would so weaken court sentencing guidelines that if a swindler such as Bernard Madoff were to be brought to justice in California, he would not face state prison time.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has asked Schwarzenegger in a letter to withdraw his proposal to change state sentencing guidelines so certain felonies, such as fraud or grand theft, would be prosecuted as misdemeanors.

Facing a $24-billion budget shortfall, Schwarzenegger has proposed the change to save $1 billion over three years by shifting 23,000 criminals from state prisons to local jails and reentry programs.

"If Bernie Madoff had committed his crime in California under the proposed statute, his . . . scam, which has destroyed countless lives and fortunes, would have been a misdemeanor," Cooley wrote to the governor. "Such scams are commonplace in California."

Schwarzenegger will work with law enforcement officials to address their concerns about the plan, administration officials said.

But "abandoning this proposal would require increasing taxes or cutting even more from education, neither of which the governor will do," said Aaron McLear, a Schwarzenegger spokesman.

-- Patrick McGreevy

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