Prison cuts hit snag in Assembly

SACRAMENTO — The Assembly late Thursday was balking at approving a Senate-passed plan to reduce the prison population by 27,300 inmates and form a commission that could overhaul sentencing laws.

The Senate voted 21-19 to narrowly approve the package, which Gov. Schwarz-enegger supports.

But Assembly Democrats for much of the day lacked the 41 votes necessary to pass the package over Republican opposition.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, was crafting potential changes to the Senate version in an attempt to ensure support from a majority of her 50-member caucus, 14 of whom have expressed interest in running for higher office next year.

Assembly Republican leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo criticized the rush to draft changes, have them analyzed and vote in one night.

"I do not understand the need to pass a bill in the dead of night," he said. "Matters of this importance deserve review."

Late Thursday, no formal language had been released of changes sought by Bass.

One of the most significant changes would eliminate a proposal to release up to 6,300 "lower-risk" offenders who are elderly, medically infirm, or have less than 12 months remaining in their sentences, according to a draft report.

Senate action came after hours of debate, in which Republicans predicted increased crime as a result of the changes, while Democrats defended the cost- cutting move as a necessary action with adequate public safety protections.

The governor's plan would cut the state's prison population of 167,700 by roughly 27,300 over the next fiscal year. The proposal relies on various maneuvers and reclassifications to pare the numbers.

For instance, 8,500 felons who are not citizens could potentially have their sentences commuted by the governor, then be given to federal authorities for deportation. The administration says only inmates who have not committed a violent or sex-related offense and who have no more than one felony conviction would be considered.

An additional 1,600 could earn credits on their sentences by completing rehabilitation and education programs.

A reduction of 5,300 inmates could come from changing the way parolees are monitored. Low-level offenders would not be subject to active supervision and so would be less likely to be found in violation of parole. Some who did violate parole would get GPS monitoring rather than prison.

The sentencing commission would be largely appointed by Schwarzenegger and would recommend sentencing and parole changes by mid-2012. They would take effect on Jan. 1, 2013, unless lawmakers voted to reject them.

"It's not just about this year's budget. It's about over time how we're going to change that awful statistic that has California spending more on corrections than on higher education," Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said after a contentious floor debate.

He called the vote "a matter of common sense and a matter of public safety." He said the changes would allow parole officers to increase time they have to monitor parolees and focus on those most at risk of becoming repeat offenders.

Senate Republican minority leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, called the plan "an exploitation of a fiscal problem to achieve a liberal agenda." He said it would undermine California voters' effort to put more criminals away for good with the "three strikes" law they approved in 1994.

Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, predicted that opponents of the bill would launch a referendum effort to put the prison reforms before voters. If they were to gather enough signatures, opponents could halt the plan until it goes on the ballot.

Four Senate Democrats did not vote for the bill. They were Lou Correa of Santa Ana; Alex Padilla of Los Angeles; Ron Calderon of Montebello; and Dean Florez of Shafter.

Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, said he's been shot at in his urban district, which he ventured is home to more state inmates per capita than any other in the state. But he said that it made sense to parole elderly and infirm prisoners to save money.

Wright said he's met an inmate who was blind and only had one leg "sitting in the joint." "It would be cheaper to put him in a nursing home and let Medi-Cal take care of him," he said.