Capitol Alert

The latest on California politics and government

February 28, 2014
Analyst says Jerry Brown's prison plan is short-term fix

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Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reduce prison overcrowding may satisfy a looming federal deadline but it does not represent a durable long-term solution, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

In a victory for the Brown administration, the federal panel adjudicating the struggle over California's prison overcrowdingrecently gave the state two more years to reduce its population to constitutional levels.

While the LAO concludes that California is on pace to slip under the federal cap, the nonpartisan analyst faulted Brown's plan for relying too much on the use of county jails and private prisons. Brown's budget would spend $481 million to place just under 17,000 inmates in so-called contract beds .

A strategy combining contract beds with other changes, such as increasing good time credits and expanding parole for the elderly, inmates with serious medical conditions and second-strikers, will likely get California under a federally-mandated cap by the new 2016 deadline, the LAO found.

But the state's prison population is projected to climb again in subsequent years. Relying on contract beds will also place a costly burden on the state, the LAO argues, to the tune of about $500 million annually.

"The plan contains relatively few measures that would help the state maintain long-term compliance other than relying indefinitely on costly contract beds," the report concludes.

Given those risks, the LAO urged the Legislature to craft some longer-term policy solutions. Its recommendations include reducing certain sentences and converting some crimes to "wobblers" that can be charged either as misdemeanors or felonies -- an approach Brown vetoed last year - allowing inmates to earn more early release credits for good behavior, and expanding programs that allow adult men to serve part of their sentences outside of state prison.

February 11, 2014
California solitary confinement changes questioned at hearing

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Lawmakers on Tuesday cast doubt on proposed changes to how California prison officials identify gang members and place them in solitary confinement.

The issue burst into prominence during a widespread hunger strike this summer, the third in two years, during which convicts and their allies liken prolonged physical isolation to torture.

Isolated cells are used to punish inmates who commit violent offenses while in prison and, more controversially, to separate purported gang members from other prisoners. Advocates for prisoners call the technique inhumane and psychologically devastating, particularly the use of indefinite terms that can leave offenders in solitary cells for decades.

Corrections officials have touted a new pilot program allowing inmates to ease their way out of solitary confinement, and regulations recently submitted to the Office of Administrative Law would allow the pilot to be applied throughout the prison system.

But legislators seemed skeptical that the changes would substantially reduce the practice of walling off inmates in the "Security Housing Units," or SHU, that exist in four state prisons.

"What we've set up here is something that's more complicated than the existing policy, it changes some names," said Senate Public Safety Committee chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, but "I am not sure it changes the general thrust of what's happening."

Hancock's Assembly Public Safety Committee counterpart, Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, also questioned the rubric officials use to gauge gang affiliation based on "source items" like legal documents, written notes and tattoos.

"To this eye, there's a vagueness," said Ammiano, adding in regards to the proposed new system that "a lot of it is lip service."

Later in the day, Ammiano announced a bill that would cap "administrative" terms in the SHU - those not related to a specific incident, which would include stays stemming from gang affiliation - at 36 months. The legislation would also allow inmates to exit more quickly by accumulating good behavior credits.

February 4, 2014
Voting-rights activists sue Debra Bowen claiming mass exclusions

BOWEN.JPGVoting-rights advocates sued Secretary of State Debra Bowen for voter disenfranchisement on Tuesday, claiming she blocked from the polls tens of thousands of Californians who fall under new categories of criminal-justice supervision.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area on behalf of the League of Women Voters and other groups.

Under state law, people imprisoned or on parole for conviction of a felony are ineligible to vote.

The new categories, created under three-year-old realignment laws, include mandatory supervision and so-called post-release community supervision as alternatives to parole for certain lower-level offenders. In a Dec. 5, 2011 memo, Bowen provided just one scenario in which a person incarcerated for a felony could retain their right to vote.

In doing so "by administrative fiat, (Bowen) expanded this voting exclusion to include people who are neither imprisoned nor on parole but are on new forms of community supervision" created by 2011 realignment laws, the lawsuit states. "As a direct result of this unilateral action, more than 58,000 Californians have been wrongly disenfranchised."

"Voting is a civic duty, and prohibiting people who are living in the community under these new forms of community supervision from participating in this critical part of our democracy serves no useful purpose and is likely to impede re-integration and rehabilitation," the lawsuit states.

PHOTO: Secretary of State Debra Bowen, right, socializes with Laura Chick, the former city controller of Los Angeles during a reception hosted by California Women Lead at Park Ultra Lounge to express their support for women to run for office. The Sacramento Bee/Autumn Cruz

November 13, 2013
California sentencing commission could be coming, Ammiano says

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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.

November 11, 2013
California's 'realignment' of some felons gets mixed reaction

CaliforniaPrisonsRealignment.jpgCalifornia's "realignment" of responsibilities for handling felons deemed to present little threat to the public is getting a decidedly mixed reaction from local law enforcement and judicial officials who are most intimately involved, according to a series of interviews conducted by the Stanford University Criminal Justice Center.

The report is the second in a projected series on realignment, the two-year-old program under which local agencies, rather than the state prison system, are incarcerating, supervising and supposedly treating low-level felons.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature enacted the program in response to federal court pressure to reduce overcrowding in the state prison system and it has dropped the prison population almost to the level decreed by the courts by diverting some new felons into local jails and stepping up parole of others into local care.

October 9, 2013
California's solitary-confinement policies scrutinized at hearing

CaliforniaPrisonsHungerStrike.jpgWith California inmates still recuperating from weeks of self-imposed starvation, state lawmakers pressed prison officials Wednesday for more information about the solitary-confinement policies that prompted prisoners to refuse nourishment.

"I'm grateful and relieved that it ended without further sacrifice or risk of human life," said Senate Public Safety Committee chair Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, "but the issues remain, and the issues that were raised during the hunger strike are real and concern about the conditions in California's supermax prisons cannot be ignored."

Hancock's Assembly counterpart, Assembly Public Safety Committee chair Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, opened the hearing by describing extended stays in solitary confinement as "beyond the pale" and chastising the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for "a very aberrant policy attitude."

September 11, 2013
California prison spending bill on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown

20130909_HA_PRISONS0284.JPGThe California Legislature is sending Gov. Jerry Brown a bill that takes a two-pronged approach to the federal court order to reduce prison crowding, asking the court for an extension to meet the obligation while appropriating $315 million to send inmates to private and out-of-state prisons, in case the extension is rejected.

Senate Bill 105 reflects a compromise between the governor and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. The two Democrats had split over how California should respond to the court order to reduce prison crowding by the end of this year. The order results from many years of litigation against the state alleging that California prisons are inhumanely overcrowded.

September 4, 2013
Darrell Steinberg says he's willing to spend some on prison beds

prison.JPGSenate leader Darrell Steinberg signaled willingness to compromise Wednesday on plans for reducing California prison overcrowding as Gov. Jerry Brown continued to criticize his fellow Democrat's approach.

"The plan approved by the Senate Budget Committee is an inmate release plan by another name, totally dependent on an illusory legal settlement," Brown said in a statement following a party-line committee vote approving a bill reflecting Steinberg plan.

"I will not turn over our criminal justice system to lawyers who operate at the behest of their inmate clients, and not the people, whose interests we are sworn to uphold," the governor said. "Moreover, the plan adds huge burdens to local government, which threaten to undo the remarkable progress we've made in realignment."

September 4, 2013
Legislative analyst says Brown's prison plan just short-term

prison.jpgGov. Jerry Brown's plan to relieve state prison overcrowding may comply with federal court orders in the short run, but not in the long run, the Legislature's budget analyst said in an analysis.

The Legislative Analyst's Office report was released as the state Senate's budget committee opened a hearing on Brown's plan and an alternate being offered by the upper house's Democratic majority. Both are aimed at avoiding outright releases of inmates.

Brown would relieve overcrowding by using out-of-state and private prisons and local facilities to reduce the state prison population by about 10,000 inmates, as the courts have ordered.

September 3, 2013
California prisons to allow inmates to marry same-sex partners

ammianopride.JPGCalifornia inmates are eligible to marry non-incarcerated partners of the same sex, according to a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation memo addressing questions arising from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Proposition 8.

Inmates will not, however, be permitted "at this time" to marry another inmate, in part due to "safety concerns," according to the memo.

The office of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, distributed the memo below. Ammiano's office said in a media release that some prisons had interpreted the law in a way that barred inmates from marrying same-sex partners, prompting a legislative inquiry and the ensuing memo.

"Inmates have the same legal right to marry as those who are not inmates," said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state corrections department. "The memo clarifies the policy we already had."

Here is the memo:

August 29, 2013
California Assembly committee OKs prison expansion bill

jerrybrown.jpgThe Assembly Budget Committee has approved an emergency measure that would send $315 million to move roughly 9,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities and leased prison spaces run by state employees by years' end.

The measure, Assembly Bill 105, doesn't cover costs for fiscal 2014-15 -- an estimated $415 million -- or beyond.

The Brown administration's proposal enjoyed support today from a number of law-and-order groups. They noted that the state has already responded to federal court orders to reduce the prison population by sentencing more convicts to local jails.

"We've reached critical mass," said Ron Cottingham, president of Peace Officers Research Association of California.

Opponents, including the ACLU and inmates' rights organizations, blasted Brown's plan for spending money on more prison beds that could go to education, rehabilitation and programs for the poor.

Jim Lundberg of Friends Committee on Legislation in California, a Quaker-based group, said Brown's plan "is not a balanced approach" that ignores early release and parole options. He feared a plan sold as a temporary fix would become a permanent fixture instead of a temporary fix.

"Why, once given this money, Lundberg said, "what would be the administration's motivation for giving it back?"

The budget committee approved the measure 21-0.

August 28, 2013
Steinberg's prison plan asks for 3 more years to reduce population

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California would get three more years to reduce its prison population to court-mandated levels while counties would get $200 million a year to expand drug treatment and mental health care for criminal offenders under a proposal Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg unveiled today that calls for settling a long-standing lawsuit against the state over its crowded prisons.

Steinberg presented the plan a day after Gov. Jerry Brown introduced legislation that calls for spending $315 million on additional prison beds to meet a federal court order to reduce crowding in the state's prisons by the end of this year. Brown's plan has the support of Republican leaders in the Legislature, Sen. Bob Huff and Assemblywoman Connie Conway, as well as Democratic Assembly Speaker John A. Perez.

But Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, is advancing a counter proposal that seeks to address the problem of crowded prisons without paying for more prison space or the early release of inmates. More than a dozen Democratic state senators stood behind Steinberg as he presented his plan to the media this morning, including a spectrum of liberal and moderate Democrats.

In addition to the grants, Steinberg's plan also calls for creating an an Advisory Commission on Public Safety to examine changing California's sentencing laws and suggests that an independent state panel should evaluate and determine the appropriate population for California prisons based on prison practices across the country.

"We cannot build or rent our way out of overcrowded prisons," Steinberg said in a statement.

"Relying solely on more prison beds is repeating the same failed investments of the past. We need solutions rooted in effective strategies to reduce crime, and we need the time to implement these real reforms. That's where I hope the Governor and the plaintiffs will find common ground."

Steinberg's plan calls on the inmate advocates who sued the state over prison crowding to settle their lawsuit against the state by Sept. 13, the last day of the legislative session. His proposal is being put into a bill that will be heard in the Senate budget committee next week.

The legislative wrangling follow court rulings that prison conditions are inhumane, and an order that the state to alleviate crowding. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an effort by Brown to delay a 2009 order that the state reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. Steinberg's plan asks the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to give the state three more years to get the prison population down to that number.

He says his proposal to give counties grants for drug treatment and mental health care is modeled after a 2009 effort that reduced new prison admissions by more than 9,500 and saved $536 million over three years.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the overcrowding cases issued a joint statement praising Steinberg's plan, saying they were "open to an extension of the date for compliance with the three judge court's order if an agreement produces an effective and sustainable approach that will resolve the chronic overcrowding problem in the state's prisons."

PHOTO: Senate President Pro Temp Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in the Senate chambers on Monday, March 11, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

August 2, 2013
Supreme Court rejects California request to halt prisoner release

Supreme_Court_California_Prisons.jpgA divided U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected California's bid to stay the court-ordered release of prisoners.

In what amounted to a 6-3 decision, issued without explanation, the court turned down California's request for more time. Conservative justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia broke from the majority decision, with Thomas and Scalia joining in a formal written dissent.

"California must now release upon the public nearly 10,000 inmates convicted of serious crimes, about 1,000 for every city larger than Santa Ana," Scalia wrote, adding that the court's order is a "terrible injunction."

Working with the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, attorney Paul Clement and the other prisoners' attorneys call California's request for more time "truly extraordinary" and denounce what they call "open defiance of the federal judiciary."

The prisoner-release order stems from a 2011 Supreme Court decision that upheld a three-judge panel's determination that the prison system population needed to be reduced to 137.5 percent of design capacity.

PHOTO: Several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium on May 20, 2009, at San Quentin State Prison. Associated Press/ Eric Risberg

July 30, 2013
VIDEO: Protesters deliver petitions to end solitary confinement in California

On the 23rd day of a statewide hunger strike in California prisons, protesters on Tuesday delivered more than 60,000 signatures to Gov. Jerry Brown's office in a push to end solitary confinement in California.

Representatives from California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition and California Prison Focus delivered the petitions to the Governor's Office Tuesday morning while a group of about 40 protesters waited outside the Capitol.

July 11, 2013
California Senate confirms Jeffrey Beard as new prisons chief

JeffreyBeard.JPGAfter a partisan debate in which Republicans criticized Gov. Jerry Brown's nominee to run the state's prisons and Democrats praised him as the best man for the job, the California Senate today voted to confirm Jeffrey Beard as secretary of the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The move comes as nearly 29,000 prisoners are holding a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates at two San Joaquin Valley prisons are getting sick with valley fever and recent reports of prison doctors sterilizing female inmates in violation of prison rules.

May 28, 2013
California's budget conference committee set to convene Friday

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A "conference committee" is a parliamentary device to reconcile differing versions of legislation passed by both houses of the Legislature, but in California's Capitol is rarely used except to produce a final legislative version of the state budget.

The 2013 budget conference committee is scheduled to convene on Friday - 15 days before the constitutional deadline for budget passage - but there are few major differences between the Senate's version of the 2013-14 budget and the Assembly's version.

That doesn't mean that there aren't some serious differences over the budget. However, the conflicts are not within the Legislature, but between its Democratic majorities in both houses and Gov. Jerry Brown. And they will be aired when Brown's representatatives appear before the committee.

Brown wants to take a conservative approach on estimating revenues while the Legislature's budgets embrace a projection by its budget analyst, Mac Taylor, that the state could have $3.2 billion more to spend than Brown assumes.

The legislative budgets would give most of the extra money, if it materializes, to schools, as the state education financing law dictates, and spend much of the remainder to bolster health and welfare programs.

Brown has warned the Legislature publicly that he'll resist any expansion of spending beyond his parameters.

Another point of budget conflict has to do with how the school money, whatever its size, will be distributed. Brown wants to shift more money into districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students but the Legislature has balked at Brown's plan and wants to scale back the extra spending on those students in favor or broader grants of aid to all districts.

PHOTO CREDIT: Gov. Jerry Brown stands for applause with Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento before delivering his State of the State speech in January. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua

May 3, 2013
Steinberg doesn't see Senate passing Brown's CA prisons plan

SteinbergLeg.JPGThe plan for reducing California prison population that Gov. Jerry Brown's administration proposed in response to a court order doesn't have fans in the Legislature so far.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said today that he doesn't see the Senate adopting the proposals the governor submitted to a three-judge panel last night.

"I'm sympathetic with the governor here," Steinberg said today. "He put out these untenable choices under protest but I'm not for that."

Steinberg said aspects of the proposal that would allow more inmates to be released, such as expanding good behavior credits for felons, are not "consistent with public safety." Spending to contract with counties or building facilities to increase bed capacity also doesn't make sense, he said.

Steinberg said he'd rather try to increase funding for rehabilitation programs, an option he said could provide more stable, long-term reductions to the inmate population. He said he hopes the courts address that in future decisions.

"The federal courts don't have to consider the very true dilemma that if we spend more money in building more prisons or jail beds, that's less money to invest in mental health, substance abuse, treatment and vocational training for parolees and probationers," he said. "The key is to reduce recidivism, not to keep building more capacity."

May 3, 2013
Advocates for CA inmate rights blast Jerry Brown's prison plan

RBJerryBrown3.JPGGroups that advocate for inmates' rights and against the expansion of the prison system railed Friday against Gov. Jerry Brown's latest plan to reduce the state's prison population, saying the governor is resorting to "fear mongering" instead of pursuing changes that will lead to fewer people being incarcerated in the state.

The Brown administration filed the court-ordered plan under protest Thursday night, maintaining that the state has done enough to cut its prison population and provide sufficient access to health care. California Corrections Secretary Jeff Beard called the plan -- which includes proposals to release hundreds of inmates who have received good behavior credits or are elderly or ill -- "unnecessary and unsafe." The state plans to appeal a three-judge panel's ruling that further reductions are needed to comply with a 2009 court order.

Representatives from the prisoners' rights groups blasted both Brown administration's premise and the policies it included in the report during a late morning press call.

February 27, 2013
Mark Leno proposes to make drug possession a 'wobbler'

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Drug charges could become a little more wobbly in California.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill that would redefine simple possession of drugs -- essentially, having a small amount for personal use -- from a felony to a so-called "wobbler," meaning that district attorneys would have the flexibility to charge a defendant with either a misdemeanor or a felony.

The measure would not affect sentencing for marijuana. Simple possession of marijuana is currently an infraction, which is less severe than a misdemeanor.

In a conference call Wednesday detailing Senate Bill 649, Leno said altering the sentencing guidelines was an alternative to a "failed and expensive war on drugs" that he said has fed soaring incarceration rates.

He argued that locking up low-level drug offenders on felony charges sustains a vicious cycle in which those users become more likely to commit additional crimes, "perpetuating an underclass of citizens."

August 15, 2012
'Realignment' has dropped California prison population sharply

California's "realignment" program, aimed at reducing overcrowding in state prisons by diverting more low-level felons into local custody and probation, has sharply reduced state inmate numbers, according to a new report, but the rate of decline seems to be slowing.

The report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco charts the first nine months of realignment ending June 30.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature adopted the program as an alternative to releasing inmates directly from prison in response to federal court orders to reduce severe prison overcrowding. The state is sending money to counties to keep more convicted felons in local jails, rather than send them to prison, take over parole supervision and provide more intensive probation oversight.

The study found that during the first nine months, there was a 39 percent reduction in new prison admissions and an inmate population drop of 26,480 -- two-thirds of the stated goal of a 40,000-inmate reduction.

But it suggests that the easy shifts may have been made and it will be tougher to meet the goal as diversion deals with felons who have more serious criminal records. And it also implies that some counties are deflecting the impact of realignment on local jails by "charging more defendants with those offenses still eligible for state imprisonment," singling out Los Angeles County's revised prosecutorial policies.

August 5, 2011
Prison overcrowding plan may fall short, report finds

By Sam Stanton
sstanton@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment plan to shift thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails will have a significant impact on prison overcrowding, a new report finds, but will still fall short of the court-imposed deadline requiring the state to reduce its inmate population by 34,000 over the next two years.

As a result, the state should heed the U.S. Supreme Court's suggestion that it ask for an extension of the deadlines to reduce prison populations, a report from the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office concludes.

May 24, 2011
Does working in prison make a parolee more employable? TBD

ha_pia21816 folsom state prison.JPG It's hard to tell whether inmates who work in prison have an easier time finding jobs once they are released than inmates who don't, according to a state auditor's report released Tuesday on the California Prison Industry Authority.

The authority employs about 3 percent of the state's prison inmates, who build license plates, manufacture mattresses, wash laundry, package produce and perform other labor.

"Although one of its primary responsibilities is to offer inmates the opportunity to develop effective work habits and occupational skills, (the authority) cannot determine the impact it makes on post‑release inmate employability because it lacks reliable data," state auditor Elaine Howle wrote in the report.

Two approaches to determining the employment rates of the general parolee population compared to those who worked for the authority were unsuccessful.

The audit said matching the Social Security numbers of parolees with Social Security numbers from state employment data was "futile." The auditor's office then tried to analyze employment data in the state parolee database, but what it termed as poor data entry practices by parole officers left that list with batches of unreliable information.

Among the audit's recommendations was one that the corrections department fix the bad data, such as entries of "TBD" and "TBA" in the employment field of some parolees' files.

Corrections official Scott Kernan responded in a letter to the auditor that those ambiguous entries were a normal practice because they are entered six months before the prisoner is released.

May 23, 2011
Steinberg says timing 'very significant' for court decision

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Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Monday that a U.S. Supreme Court decision on prison overcrowding highlights the need for additional tax dollars to pay for inmate care.

The court upheld an earlier mandate from a three-judge panel that the state reduce its prison population by as many as 46,000 inmates. In the 5-4 decision, the court cited Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to shift lower-level offenders and parole violators to county jails as a sign "that the prison population can be reduced in a manner calculated to avoid an undue negative effect on public safety."

The governor signed legislation last month, Assembly Bill 109, to carry out the inmate shift, but only if the state provides sufficient money to local governments. Brown and legislative Democrats want to extend higher rates on vehicle and sales taxes to pay for it.

Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said the timing of the decision was "very significant" since it comes just weeks before lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the state budget and Brown's revenue package.

"Either the court will do it or we have the opportunity to do it right," Steinberg said. "I hope, and I expect over the next couple weeks, that we will do the latter ... One of the worst things we could do would be to give sheriffs and police chiefs and local communities this responsibility, which is coming by virtue of the Supreme Court decision, and not give them the resources to be able to do their jobs."

By 2014-15, Brown's plan envisions that the state will have diverted 40,984 inmates from state prisons to local jails. That includes "lower-level" offenders and those who currently must return to prison for several months after violating parole.

His proposal would shift about $955 million in state costs during 2011-12, as well as $611 million to $762 million annually in subsequent years. All would be funded by the tax extensions over five years.

Republicans, who oppose Brown's tax plan, criticized the court's decision. They fear shifting inmates to local facilities could force an early release of dangerous individuals since many county jails are already filled beyond capacity.

"People that go to the state prison system aren't there because they stole a pack of chewing gum," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. "There are some very serious people there. What I'm concerned about is, you're turning them loose with no way of supporting themselves. We can't even find jobs now for people who haven't broken the law."

Dutton said construction has been too slow after lawmakers approved state bonds in 2007 to increase prison and jail capacity. The Supreme Court questioned whether the state could "build itself out of this crisis."

Given the court decision, Dutton suggested that California examine whether it could transfer custody of 10,000 illegal immigrant inmates into federal hands with a guarantee they would not be released early. Among those the state may transfer to counties, Dutton suggested that California focus on inmates with the least time left on their sentences, as well as conduct a risk assessment of 13,000 parole violators.

Updated at 4 p.m. to reflect updated costs of shifting inmates to counties.

PHOTO CREDIT: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, speaks at the Capitol Bureau on Jan. 20, 2011. Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee.

April 28, 2011
Jerry Brown pulls plug on building San Quentin's new death row

MC_SAN QUENTIN_GALLERY.19.JPGGov. Jerry Brown pulled the plug today on plans to construct a new housing facility for condemned inmates at San Quentin.

Brown said in a statement that he believes it would "be unconscionable to earmark $356 million for a new and improved death row while making severe cuts to education and programs that serve the most vulnerable among us."

That bill would add an estimated $28.5 million general fund costs in annual debt service payments, his office said.

"At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the State of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state," said Brown. "California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates."

The project, which has been in the works since 2003, was designed to house 1,152 inmates. There are currently fewer than 700 inmates on California's death row, according to Brown's office.

PHOTO CREDIT: Doors lead to the old gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison, Sept. 21, 2010. Manny Crisostomo, Sacramento Bee.

March 2, 2011
Under criticism, Corrections pushes parole for sick inmates

California prison officials, stung by legislators' criticism about the high-cost of medical care, said Wednesday they will expedite medical parole procedures for 10 especially high-cost prisoners who are housed in hospitals outside prisons.

All 10 are said to be in persistent vegetative states or on ventilators.

About two dozen felons are so ill that they are being cared for in hospitals around the state at a cost estimated to be $50 million a year. Overall, the cost of providing health care to inmates is about $2 billion annually.

The issue has taken on urgency as lawmakers seek to balance a budget with a $26.6 billion deficit.

Caring for debilitated inmates in hospitals runs $5,000 a day, a price tag driven higher because the state pays two correctional officers to guard them 24-hours a day. By granting them medical parole, the department could cut the cost of guarding them.

Matthew Cate, director of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, requested the identities of the inmates a week after Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and other lawmakers questioned the pace at which officials were considering medical parole.

Leno authored the medical parole legislation last year, contending it would save tens of millions of dollars annually. He chastised corrections officials in a budget hearing last week after learning the department had not implemented the law five months after it was signed.

J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver overseeing California prison health care, pushed for the 2010 legislation, SB 1399.

Nancy Kincaid, the receiver's spokeswoman, said Kelso's office identified the inmates on Wednesday, the same day that Cate requested the names and urged that their cases be expedited. One had been on a ventilator since 2003. Others had been in hospitals since 2004, and 2005.

Corrections spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said that corrections will turn the names over to the Board of Parole Hearings, which will decide whether to grant medical parole.

While many of the paroled patients will end up on Medi-Cal, officials say the state will save money on their medical care because the federal government picks up half the Medi-Cal tab. And as parolees, they would no longer be guarded.

Hidalgo said it remains unclear where the individuals might be housed.

"It gets pretty complicated," Hidalgo said.

September 20, 2010
Meg Whitman talks pensions, prisons, unions with Bee editorial board

ha_mwhitman_still12545.JPGRepublican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman told The Sacramento Bee editorial board this morning that, if elected, she'll negotiate with the three biggest public employee unions to create 401(k)-style retirement plans for new state workers.

She also said she would "take a whack" at reining in the state's prison costs, including moving prisoners to other states and cutting prison health care costs.

She added that she would seek pension reforms for prison guards and other public safety employees. Whitman also said she could see building another prison if elected governor but would try to avoid building a new "death row" prison.

"Part of the reason we find ourselves in the situation we now find ourselves in is we had banked on a very high investment portfolio return, which didn't materialize, and now we are on the hook for defined benefits, very generous defined benefits, to not only the prison guards but all the others," Whitman said. "We have got to renegotiate these benefits. And I will negotiate in good faith with all the different unions."

In response to a question from the editorial board, Whitman also said she wanted to "look at what the opportunities are for privatizing the prisons."

Whitman admitted that enacting such reforms wouldn't happen overnight but said she was optimistic she could make a quick impact. She said she would consider putting pension reform on the ballot.

"It's going to take some time," Whitman said. "There's no questions about it. But I think we can make a lot of progress in the first 12 months... about attacking, if you will, how to run the government more efficiently, how to take on the pensions, how to reform welfare."

When asked about Proposition 23, which would suspend the state's global warming law AB 32, Whitman said she would release a list of her proposition positions at the end of this week or at the start of next week.

February 24, 2010
California prison health care cuts -- a closer look

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative Democrats are backing an $811 million cut to prison medical costs in 2010-11, contained in a bill the Legislature sent the governor Monday. Democrats have included that cut as part of their $5 billion budget solution.

The $811 million cut wasn't based on California's needs or sophisticated analysis. It comes from applying New York's per-inmate cost of $5,757 to California's prison population, which the governor considers more appropriate than California's current cost of about $11,000 per inmate.

But the cut is not as severe as it might first seem. Schwarzenegger in his budget also proposed increasing the prison medical budget by $519.1 million this fiscal year and adding $532.2 million in 2010-11, a total of $1.05 billion from now until June 2011. The Legislature will wait until after the governor's May revision to decide exactly how much to allocate to corrections and other major portions of the budget.

The governor's proposed budget increases came from conversations with the federal receiver in charge of prison medical care, J. Clark Kelso, according to the Department of Finance. The receiver wants to use the additional money for nursing resources, an electronic medical records system and an improved information technology network to take advantage of long-distance medical care.

As with any budget section, the Department of Finance first determines the state's workload before proposing reductions. So in this case, Finance determined that prison medical care requires $1.05 billion more through June 2011. It then proposed the $811 million cut in 2010-11. The overall impact from now until June 2011 is that prison health care would actually get about $240 million more than previously anticipated.

Kelso said at a budget hearing this month he is supportive of the governor's proposed budget. He committed to trying to find more ways to reduce costs through managed care and relying on cost-efficient technologies.

In the end, the budget for the prison receiver remains a squishy budget item. If the receiver has to spend more money than what has been allocated, he can do so unless the state challenges the federal judiciary. Should the receiver spend more money than lawmakers and the governor allocate in the budget, state leaders likely won't deal with it until they confront the 2011-12 deficit next year.

February 24, 2010
Administration warned lawmakers of lower prison savings

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger officials confirmed yesterday that the governor planned to commute the sentences of only about 850 illegal immigrant inmates between now and June 2011, saving only $19 million.

Schwarzenegger previously included that assumption in his January budget, and a Department of Finance official told the Senate Budget Committee this month that the governor had no plans to achieve anywhere near the $182 million in savings he had estimated last year. After reviewing the illegal immigrant prison population last fall, the Schwarzenegger administration determined it could only save about $19 million this year and next.

Even so, Democrats persisted in using last year's $182 million savings in the package of budget bills the Legislature sent Monday to the governor. Democrats said yesterday and in committee that they thought they should hold the governor to last year's number, despite indications he will come nowhere near that savings. The governor, not the Legislature, has authority over most illegal immigrant commutations.

February 8, 2010
Rex Babin: Early release

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Rex Babin is the political cartoonist for The Bee. You can see a collection of his work here.

January 29, 2010
Illegal-immigrant inmates no longer allowed in work program

A board that oversees vocational training and work programs at California prisons has voted to discontinue allowing undocumented immigrant inmates set for deportation to participate in the California Prisons Industry Authority certification program.

Authority spokesman Tom Collins said the aim of the Prison Industry Board action Thursday is to "ensure that the effective vocational training that CalPIA provides is first applied to inmates who will return to California's communities following their parole, rather than training individuals who will not."

The program, established in its current form in 1982, provides training and jobs in the manufacturing and agricultural industries for inmates in 22 prisons across the state.

Approximately 427 of the 5,700 inmates now participating are under an Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold and will be deported once their sentence is completed. Fifty-two of the 727 inmate workers enrolled in certification programs are also under an ICE hold, according to a staff report recommending the change.

January 28, 2010
Serious or not, Arnold Schwarzenegger knows public opinion

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger generated buzz this week when he tossed out an idea to have California pay to build and operate prisons in Mexico to save money on housing the state's illegal immigrant inmates.

January 27, 2010
Campbell, Whitman fare well in new PPIC poll

Republicans Tom Campbell and Meg Whitman fare well in a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Campbell, a former Silicon Valley congressman who shifted his political ambition this month from governor to U.S. senator, already enjoys a strong lead over GOP rivals Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore, the poll found, and is locked in a near-tie with Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Whitman, former CEO of eBay, has increased her lead over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner among Republicans with Campbell out of the contest, PPIC's survey found, and trails the sole Democratic candidate, Attorney General Jerry Brown, by only a few points.

PPIC's results generally reflect those of another new statewide poll by the Field Research Corp., but came up with closer results in the theoretical gubernatorial and senatorial matchups.

January 26, 2010
California's illegal immigrant inmates, by the numbers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's suggestion on Monday to build a prison in Mexico raised several questions, not least of which was how many illegal immigrant inmates in California actually have Mexican citizenship.

Schwarzenegger's suggestion drew a response from Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, whose office said in a press release today that the governor erroneously implied all illegal immigrant prisoners are from Mexico, a claim that "showed tremendous racial insensitivity."

As of Dec. 31, 2009, California prisons had 22,173 inmates with an immigration hold or potential immigration hold, according to a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation analysis. That represented 13 percent of the state's 168,830 inmates.

Inmates self-identify their country of birth, so the citizenship breakdown may not be entirely accurate, according to CDCR spokesman Gordon Hinkle. For instance, 827 of the inmates with an actual or potential immigration hold reported they were born in the United States, but they have a hold because their citizenship is in question.

According to the chart, 15,124 of the 22,173 inmates with an actual or potential immigration hold self-identified as Mexican natives, equal to 68.2 percent. The second-highest country was El Salvador, which had 1,133, or 5.1 percent. After that came the United States, for the aforementioned reason, with 3.7 percent. Vietnam was fourth with 734 inmates, or 3.3 percent.

You can see the CDCR tables here.

CORRECTION: A reader points out that we misread the CDCR tables indicating which crimes were most common among illegal immigrants. The most common crime among illegal immigrants was lewd act (2,688), followed by robbery (2,473) and second-degree murder (2,454).

January 26, 2010
Don't start making plans for that prison in Mexico just yet

If it wasn't clear yesterday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear impressed upon Capitol reporters Tuesday that the governor's idea to build a prison in Mexico for illegal immigrant inmates is not under serious consideration at the moment.

The Republican governor suggested Monday at his annual Sacramento Press Club address that California could pay Mexico to build and house 19,000 illegal immigrant inmates to save "$1 billion."

McLear said Tuesday that the Governor's Office cannot say where the state would save $1 billion under such a plan because it has no plan. He emphasized that Schwarzenegger was just passing along an idea that some people -- unclear on who -- offered to the governor as a way to save money.

"Whether it's Mexico, other countries or other states, if we can figure out great ways that we can save money on what we're spending on prisons, we ought to debate that and look at it," McLear said. "... I think you guys have covered him long enough to know he likes the out-of-the-box, creative ideas. He doesn't think any idea is too zany to at least debate."

January 26, 2010
LAO: Schwarzenegger's prison-higher ed plan 'ill-conceived'

In a four-page review, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said today that lawmakers should reject Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed ballot measure to dedicate more money to public universities than prisons.

"It is an unnecessary, ill-conceived measure that would do serious harm to the budget process," the LAO report concludes.

Schwarzenegger's constitutional amendment would require the state to spend no more than 7 percent of general fund money on corrections and no less than 10 percent on the University of California and California State University systems.

In 2009-10, the state is spending 5.7 percent of general fund money on UC and CSU, compared to 9.5 percent on corrections in the governor's revised budget.

LAO points out that corrections has received an increasing share of state budget funds because the number of inmates and parolees has increased, federal judges have imposed additional costs due to prison health care lawsuits and correctional officer compensation has increased.

But LAO says that the percentage figures don't tell the whole story. The UC and CSU totals don't include Cal Grant money that helps pay for tuition. At the same time, California -- as have other states -- has increasingly shifted costs to students as a policy change.

LAO lists various reasons the state shouldn't pursue a ballot measure that enshrines percentages in the state constitution. It says the measure would ignore community colleges, inappropriately pit two program areas against each other and set arbitrary benchmarks that could hurt spending on other state priorities. It notes that the governor and Legislature already have the ability to prioritize higher education in any given budget year.

December 30, 2009
Critic of proposed prison medical facility files ethics complaint

A vocal critic of the federal prison health care receiver's plan to construct a medical facility in Stockton is charging that a Sacramento law firm hired to build support for the project violated legal ethics standards by sending the son of Rep. John Garamendi to "pump" him for information about a lawsuit he has filed against the project.

The complaint, filed by Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce CEO Douglass Wilhoit, alleges that a series of conversations he had with John Garamendi Jr. violated the State Bar of California's Rule of Professional Conduct, which prohibits attorneys representing one side of a case to communicate directly or indirectly about the subject of the representation with the opposing party without the consent of that party's lawyer.

The receiver hired Garamendi in November to conduct community outreach for the project as part of a contract with Ochoa and Moore law firm.

Garamendi is not registered as an attorney by the bar and the firm does not represent the receivership in the lawsuit, which the chamber, the city of Stockton and San Joaquin County filed to challenge the accuracy of the project's environmental impact report.

December 21, 2009
Steinberg sets sights on filling budget hole in new year

From Susan Ferriss and Torey Van Oot

For state lawmakers, ringing in the New Year also means getting ready for what's shaping up to be another painful budget season.

They'll return to the Capitol Jan. 4 to tackle a deficit that is expected to swell to $6.3 billion by the end of the fiscal year.

Filling that hole -- and the $21 billion deficit projected for the next 18 months --tops Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's list of priorities for the new year.

Steinberg said in an interview with The Bee that while further cuts and new revenues will be needed to close that gap, the first place to look for cost savings is in the prisons.

December 15, 2009
Rex Babin: Paying for prisons

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Rex Babin is the political cartoonist for The Bee. Click here for a collection of his work.

December 11, 2009
Prison receiver hires ex-legislator Machado for outreach work

A former state senator and the son of newly elected Rep. John Garamendi have been hired by the federal prison health care receiver to build support for a proposed facility in San Joaquin County.

Former Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, and John Garamendi, Jr. are part of a contract Receiver Clark Kelso inked with the Ochoa & Moore law firm. The contract, which involves five employees at the firm, is capped at $400,000. Machado said he was making $300 an hour. Garamendi's father, a Walnut Grove Democrat, was elected to Congress Nov. 3.

Machado, who represented San Joaquin County in the state Legislature for 14 years, has been contracted to conduct "community outreach" efforts for the project, receiver spokesman Luis Patino said. His contract begins Monday.

September 11, 2009
Assembly will try again on prison reform

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass said this afternoon that she'll make another effort before adjournment tonight to nail down votes for prison reform legislation.

"We're close but not quite there," Bass said on a Los Angeles radio show, adding that Democrats would go into private caucus to discuss whether to approve so-called "alternative custody" for inmates as part of an overall prison reform package.

The Senate approved a measure, backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, aimed at cutting the prison population by some 27,000 inmates to both save money and meet demands from federal judges. But the Assembly balked, with Democrats openly worried about being branded soft on crime, and approved a milder measure that the Senate has refused to take up.

Bass also said she expects that backroom negotiations over water will "take all day" with no guarantees of success. Negotiations have shifted to proposed bond issues to finance water development. But, Bass confirmed, some Democrats are balking because water bonds could freeze out borrowing for schools and other projects and their repayment would reduce money for other spending.

September 8, 2009
Senate may vote on Assembly prison plan - or not

UPDATE: Late Tuesday afternoon, Senate President Darrell Steinberg decided to give the Assembly more time to develop a more far-reaching, cost-cutting prison plan than it adopted on Aug. 31.

Steinberg earlier in the day said the Senate might take up the Assembly bill as early as today but later backed away after consulting with Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, although he declined to discuss specifics of their conversation.

"I'm not sure when I'm going to take it up," Steinberg said of the Assembly's current prison package, "because I still hold out hope that the Assembly will pass the other important pieces of the overall package."

An hour earlier, Steinberg had indicated he was ready to take up the Assembly plan, implying that he had abandoned hopes that the Assembly would move closer to the Senate-passed version, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also supports.

The Senate-passed plan is aimed at saving $1.2 billion in the current budget by reducing the inmate population by some 27,000 inmates. The Assembly balked, however, because of stiff opposition from law enforcement groups and removed several features, including a commission to overhaul the state's criminal sentencing laws.

The Assembly version would reduce inmates by about 17,000 and save less than a billion dollars. Steinberg had criticized his fellow Democrats in the Assembly for backing away, calling it "just another example of a culture of failure" and missing a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to get a law-and-order Republican governor to sign sweeping sentencing and prison changes

"I'm in no hurry to take up what they passed yesterday," Steinberg said last week after the Assermbly action. Today, howewver, Steinberg said that adjourning the 2009 session without accepting the Assembly plan would pass up $350 million in budget savings as the state continues to flirt with deficits. And then an hour later, he changed course again, saying he woudl give the Assembly more time to act.

September 1, 2009
Schwarzenegger to seek Supreme Court appeal of prison ruling

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court of a federal order to reduce the state's prison population by more than 40,000 inmates over the next two years, his office announced Tuesday.

A federal three-judge panel last month ordered California officials to reduce the state's prison population because overcrowding has led to unconstitutional levels of care. The order required the state to present a reduction plan by Sept. 18.

Schwarzenegger on Tuesday asked the panel to delay that order, a procedural move likely to be rejected. If that happens, the governor plans to file a similar request Friday with the Supreme Court. Schwarzenegger, who is being represented by Attorney General Jerry Brown and outside counsel, also will notify the three-judge panel Thursday that he is seeking an appeal with the Supreme Court.

In today's court filing, Schwarzenegger's attorneys assert that the three-judge panel should grant a delay of the order because the state's appeal with the Supreme Court has a "strong likelihood of success." They argue that there is no nexus between reducing the prison population and improving medical or mental health care for inmates.

Schwarzenegger's attorneys make an additional argument "that such a dramatic reduction in California's prison population is likely to result in increased crime."

That assertion comes just as Schwarzenegger is trying to convince the Legislature to reduce the state's prison population by roughly 37,000 inmates over the next two years. Schwarzenegger last week framed his plan as a way "to create safer streets."

Yet today's court filing warns that the three-judge panel order to reduce the prison population would result in "a statistically significant increase of over 6.6 percent in California's crime rate."

August 31, 2009
Steinberg: Assembly vote 'not a complete package'

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After another round of heated debate, a slimmed-down version of the Senate-passed prisons cuts bill squeaked by in the Assembly. The bill, which you can read here, was approved 41-35.

The Assembly's version of the bill lacks several key and controversial components included in the Senate's plan. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, issued a statement saying the Assembly, "took a good first step today but it's not a complete package."

"In the coming weeks, I look forward to working with Speaker Karen Bass and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on further reforms that will strengthen our criminal justice system," he said.

Read more on the bill from The Bee's Jim Sanders here.

Photo: Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, listen as lawmakers debate the corrections cuts plan Monday afternoon. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee)

August 31, 2009
Prisons plan on tap for Assembly floor session

The Assembly, which is expected to take up its version of the prisons cuts plan today, has convened for its scheduled floor session. Tune in for a video feed of the action here.

Click here for an updated summary of the bill and how it differs from the Senate-passed plan.

You can read the bill language here.

After the jump, read a list of organizations that have taken a "support," "neutral" or "no position" stance on the Assembly's pared-down plan.

August 28, 2009
Dugard case casts thundercloud over prisons debate

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The ghost of Willie Horton has haunted the debate over the plan to cut prison costs by reducing the inmate population and relying more heavily on parole.

Now, the case of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was rescued this week after being kept in captivity by a convicted rapist for 18 years, is expected to spark a fresh round of attacks from critics of the plan.

Phillip Garrido, who is charged along with his wife Nancy with kidnapping Dugard when she was 11 years old, was able to conceal her and two daughters he fathered with her, despite being a registered sex offender subject to home visits and monitoring by a parole officer.

Sen. Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, lashed out at the prisons plan in this piece by The Bee's Sam Stanton:

"This demonstrates the problems that we're going to have if we release thousands of prisoners into our local communities," said Harman, who is running for Attorney General and voted against the plan. "Here was a prisoner who was a very great danger to the community. The parole people knew it, he was supposedly being checked three times a month, and still he was able to perpetrate this crime that lasted over 18 years."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg shot back, saying Garrido would not have been released early under the Senate-passed plan and highlighting a provision that would lower the caseload for parole officers from about 70 to 45 parolees.

"The parole reforms passed by the Senate increase parole agents' ability to more effectively monitor this kind of sex offender," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said in a statement. "Our resources must be marshaled to crack down on offenders like Phillip Garrido. He is the poster child for the need to reduce parole officer caseloads and increase parolee monitoring like the Senate voted to do last week."

The Assembly is expected to vote on a pared-down version of the Senate-passed prisons bill on Monday.

Photo: A file photo of Jaycee Lee Dugard as a young girl.

August 27, 2009
Assembly unveils revised prisons cuts language

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass released the Assembly's version of the prisons cuts bill today. The Assembly is expected to take up the plan Monday, spokeswoman Shannon Murphy wrote in an e-mail.

As expected, several key elements of the Senate-passed plan have been eliminated, including the creation of a sentencing commission, the release of some inmates to electronic surveillance or alternative custody and changes to the prosecution standards for "wobbler" crimes, which can currently prosecuted either as misdemeanors or felonies.

Read a summary of the bill and changes here or the bill language here.

August 26, 2009
Schwarzenegger: Assembly lacks guts on prisons vote

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talked with Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams in a Tweetcast Q&A today. It must have been lunchtime at Twitter's San Francisco headquarters -- judging by the open refrigerator in the background, at least.

*This post was updated at 9:20 p.m. with developments on the expected vote for the prisons package and Murphy's response*

During an otherwise lighthearted "Tweetcast" video interview, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a swipe at the Assembly, calling members of the lower house gutless for not yet passing the prisons package.

"They don't have the guts to now make these decisions because they're more worried about their safe seats rather than the safe streets," he said.

The plan to cut prisons costs and reduce the overall inmate population by about 27,300 was narrowly approved in the Senate last week, without any Republican votes.

But several key components of the Senate's package, including the creation of a commission to consider changes to sentencing guidelines and a proposal to release as many as 6,300 low-level, nonviolent inmates to electronic monitoring or house arrest, faced resistance in the Assembly. With 11 members possibly running for higher office, Assembly Democrats were not able to secure the 41 votes needed to approve the Senate-passed plan. The Assembly was expected to take up an altered version of the package tomorrow, but Assembly Speaker Karen Bass said late Wednesday that the vote would be put off.

"We are continuing to make progress on this very complicated issue, and we will vote as quickly as is prudent," she said in a statement. "I would expect that the Assembly will vote on a responsible plan in the coming days that reduces prison overcrowding and improves public safety - and which won't be immediately be challenged by the cops, sheriff's and DA's who Californians entrust with their safety."

Bass spokeswoman Shannon Murphy shot back at Schwarzenegger Wednesday evening for criticizing Democrats' efforts to pass his plan, which does not have the support of Republicans.

"The governor, who has vetoed prison reform legislation in the past, should spend less time rattling his rhetorical sword and more time producing Republican votes for his public safety proposals," she wrote in an e-mail.

Schwarzenegger's remarks came toward the end of a Tweetcast Q&A the governor taped with Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams earlier today. Watch the video here or check out some other interview highlights after the jump:

August 25, 2009
Interactive map: prisons populations

As Jim Sanders reports in today's Bee, the Assembly is still negotiating the details of the prisons package with the goal of voting on some variation of the Senate-passed plan later this week.

One of the central functions of the Senate plan is to reduce the overall prison inmate population by about 27,300, while upping parole supervision for more violent criminals.

To get a sense of how the inmate and parolee populations are spread out across the state, check out this interactive map from SacBee.com.

August 24, 2009
Assembly postpones prisons vote

With closed-door talks continuing, the Assembly will not vote on a prison budget-cutting plan today after all.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass has been meeting with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and advocacy groups, including law enforcement, in an attempt to reach consensus, said Shannon Murphy, Bass' spokeswoman.

"There were a number of calls and meetings throughout the weekend with various stakeholders, including law enforcement," Bass said in a written statement today. "Those conversations are continuing.

"When we arrive at a responsible plan that can earn the support of the majority of the Assembly and makes sense to the people of California, we will take that bill up on the Assembly floor."

The Senate narrowly passed a wide-ranging prison plan Thursday, 21-19, but the Assembly balked at supporting it after spending much of that afternoon and evening crafting amendments.

Unable to reach consensus on either the Senate plan or Assembly amendments, the lower house adjourned at midnight without taking a vote. Passage requires a majority vote, 41 of 80 members. Republicans oppose both versions.

In a Friday morning news conference minutes after adjournment of last week's marathon session, Bass said she was not sure that either the Senate or Assembly version had majority support in her house.

"The caucus was exhausted," she said at the time. "There are still several members that have issues with various parts of the bill."

Bass initially said she planned to tackle the prison budget-cutting legislation when lawmakers reconvene today, but that plan ultimately changed. Murphy said talks will continue but no vote will be taken.

California is under judicial and budgetary pressure to overhaul its prison system, which has nearly twice the number of inmates it was designed to house.

Schwarzenegger and legislators last month committed to a $1.2 billion reduction, but left unresolved how that cut would be implemented, prompting this week's wrangling over the issue.

August 24, 2009
Amended prison plan returns to Assembly today

Controversial legislation to cut $1.2 billion from California's prison spending will return today to the Assembly, which will convene at noon.

The lower house balked Thursday at approving a Senate-passed prisons bill that is supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass ultimately adjourned her house at midnight without settling on a plan.

California is under judicial and budgetary pressure to overhaul its prison system, which is accommodating far more inmates than it was designed to house.

Negotiations reportedly continue on a compromise plan between the two houses, but meanwhile, Assembly members were expected over the weekend to consider amendments crafted their leaders.

Key changes proposed by the Assembly would:

  • Eliminate a proposal that would allow the release of up to 6,300 "lower-risk" inmates -- under house arrest with electronic monitoring -- who are medically infirm, aged, or serving the final 12 months of their sentence.
  • Retain the ability for prosecutors to charge suspects with felonies for committing any of three crimes: writing bad checks, receiving stolen property, or petty theft with a prior conviction.
  • Require theft of property valued at about $950 or more to support a felony charge of grand theft. The Senate version would have raised the current $400 threshold much higher - to $2,500.
  • Allow inmates to earn up to four months in additional sentencing credits for completion of rehabilitation, education or vocation programs in prison. The Senate version called for up to six weeks of credits.
  • Alter the structure of a proposed sentencing commission that would have broad powers to rewrite sentencing guidelines.

The Assembly version would raise the commission's voting members from 13 to 14. It also would grant law enforcement more clout both by adding a representative from rank-and-file and by requiring that any actions of the commission by approved by two law enforcement members. A requirement that an ex-felon receive a nonvoting seat would be eliminated.

The Assembly's changes to the sentencing commission proposal angered California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, representing public defenders and criminal defense attorneys in private practice.

"This amendment will eliminate any independence of the proposed sentencing commission," said Ted Cassman, president of the group, in a written statement. "A single interest group should not be able to hold sentencing reform hostage in California."

August 21, 2009
Whitman weighs in on prison debate

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman jumped into the prison legislation melee Friday in an e-mail in which she called plans to release some 27,000 prisoners over the next fiscal year "an unbelievable violation of the trust Californians put in their leaders to carry out the first duty of government - public safety."

Among other measures, the bill would allow some inmates to be released early and wouldn't automatically send back to prison parole violators. The state Senate approved the plan Thursday, but the Assembly has stalled on the legislation.

In the e-mail, Whitman also criticized another part of the bill appointing a commission to rewrite the state's sentencing laws, saying the commission "is a dangerous and poorly disguised attempt to overturn the will of voters who overwhelming approved the Three Strikes and You're Out Law."

For the record, the commission would have no authority to rewrite Proposition 184.

Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei expanded on the e-mail in a written statement:

"Three Strikes is an initiative but the commission, as passed by the Senate, could pick apart the law by picking and choosing which felonies can be turned into misdemeanors," Pompei wrote.

"Once you open the door and start talking about downgrading felonies to misdemeanors, which this commission would have the power to do, you begin to dismantle criminal sentencing in California and weaken 3 strikes and overturn the will of the people."

August 20, 2009
Time flies when you're springing cons

Legislators, being legislators, just couldn't wait for today's vote to be over on the budget-balancing prison package to start issuing press releases about their anger/pride/confusion about how things turned out.

The best of show in the early running was from Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto. In the third paragraph of his missive, the senator exclaimed he was "outraged that, with less than 24 hours of review, Democrats have pushed through these sweeping changes to public safety."

But in his last paragraph, it's explained that "Last month, Senator Cogdill expressed his strong concerns over the impacts those public safety cuts would have on Californians."

Uh, would those be the same public safety cuts the Democrats "pushed through with less than 24 hours of review"?

P.S. -- Cogdill also urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the bill. This is an apparent reference to the same Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who was behind the bill. Well, no harm in trying...

August 19, 2009
Sentencing commission part of prison reform package

A set of money-saving prison reforms to be taken up by the Legislature tomorrow includes the creation of a sentencing commission that will draft new sentencing and parole rules, according to a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Such a commission had not been part of reforms proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to account for $1.2 billion in cuts to the state's prison system.

Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the rules drawn up by the commission will automatically take effect unless the governor and legislators reject them.

Schwarzenegger spokesman, Aaron McLear, said the governor has been supportive of a sentencing commission that allows him to appoint the members, that has a majority of public safety members and "has teeth" -- meaning its recommendations will take effect unless rejected by the Legislature.

"It's important that the commission would have real authority," McLear said. We've been debating this for two years. It's time to act."

Click here to read an analysis, and here to read the language.



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Capitol Alert Staff


Amy Chance Amy Chance is political editor for The Sacramento Bee. achance@sacbee.com. Twitter: @Amy_Chance

Dan Smith Dan Smith is Capitol bureau chief for The Sacramento Bee. smith@sacbee.com. Twitter: @DanielSnowSmith

Jim Miller Jim Miller covers California policy and politics and edits Capitol Alert. jmiller@sacbee.com. Twitter: @jimmiller2

David Siders David Siders covers the Brown administration. dsiders@sacbee.com. Twitter: @davidsiders

Christopher Cadelago Christopher Cadelago covers California politics and health care. ccadelago@sacbee.com. Twitter: @ccadelago

Laurel Rosenhall Laurel Rosenhall covers the Legislature, the lobbying community and higher education. lrosenhall@sacbee.com. Twitter: @LaurelRosenhall

Jeremy White Jeremy B. White covers the Legislature. jwhite@sacbee.com. Twitter: @capitolalert

Koseff Alexei Koseff edits Capitol Alert's mobile Insider Edition. akoseff@sacbee.com. Twitter: @akoseff

Dan Walters Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. dwalters@sacbee.com. Twitter: @WaltersBee

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