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The prospect of a renewed push for a statewide sentencing commission surfaced during a Wednesday hearing on California's criminal justice system.

Under a federal court order to reduce crowding in California's prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown last year introduced a bill to buy the state time by allocating $315 million for new inmate facilities. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, backed that plan, while Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg rallied his caucus behind an alternate proposal calling for an advisory sentencing commission.

Many lawmakers supported an eventual compromise bill containing the $315 million reluctantly, casting aye votes even as they decried the federal order and questioned the wisdom of pouring more money into incarceration.

Speakers at Wednesday's hearing of the newly created Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment, which grew out of Brown's bill, described less costly alternatives to incarceration, including special courts for drug offenders and the mentally ill. But Cristine Soto DeBerry, chief of staff to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, said the most pressing need is finding a way to even out sentencing practices that can vary dramatically across California.

DeBerry said California should follow the lead of other states and create a sentencing commission, something she said "really goes a long way to help guide the hand of a prosecutor and a judge."

"I am so with you on that," Assembly Public Safety Committee chair Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, replied, "and we will be presenting something like that in January."

In a followup interview with The Bee, Ammiano said that past attempts to launch a sentencing commission have been thwarted by disagreements about who would sit on such a panel. But he said he is determined to try again, and suggested that prison realignment presents an auspicious backdrop.

"There's a lot of fodder here not only in terms of prison overcrowding but the rehabilitative part, which we've neglected for a long time in sentencing," Ammiano said, pointing to "a lot of imbalance around sentencing."

Sentencing reform also entered the discussion on Wednesday as speakers mentioned the possibility of converting more crimes into "wobblers" that can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. Brown this year vetoed a bill that would have made simple drug possession a wobbler, saying in his veto message that the prison spending bill positioned California to "examine in detail California's criminal justice system, including the current sentencing structure."

When Robin Lipetzky of the Contra Costa County Public Defender's Office brought up the governor's veto, Ammiano quickly interjected.

"We're working on him," Ammiano said.

As prison realignment shuttles offenders from the state's bursting prisons to its jails, continuing to rely on sentences that do now allow for treatment and rehabilitation risks replicating California's prison dilemma, said Santa Clara Judge Stephen V. Manley.

"If we just ship this problem to the counties and overcrowd the jails," Manley said, "then we'll have another 58 lawsuits."

PHOTO: Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, during session in the Assembly chambers in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday, March 11, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua.


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