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Aug 2009
Prison bill gutted by state Assembly

A controversial prison bill that would have reduced California's inmate population by 27,000 has been significantly watered down by state Assembly lawmakers who pushed aside a plan to allow some prisoners to finish their sentences at home.

Assembly legislators also removed provisions that would have changed some felonies to misdemeanors and would have created a sentencing commission to revamp punishment rules.

The changes would reduce the state's prison population by about 16,000 inmates instead of 27,000, and would save the state about $325 million instead of $525 million.

Details of the revised bill were unveiled Thursday. The bill was originally hammered out by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders, and the amended version will probably be voted on by the Assembly on Monday. If passed, it heads to the Senate for approval.

Set aside were some of the most controversial parts of the legislation, such as allowing sick and elderly inmates to finish their sentences at home or in community hospitals, where they would be monitored by GPS tracking devices, according to Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista (Los Angeles County).

Commission plan sidelined

The bill also put aside plans for creating a sentencing commission to revamp the state's rules on punishment and parole, an idea backed by many Senate Democrats including President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. The bill, in its original form, passed the Senate by a 21-19 vote last week.

The original package, negotiated in part by Bass, stalled in the Assembly late last week despite Democrats' strong majority in the lower house of the Legislature.

The revised bill eliminates changes to some crimes - such as writing bad checks and receiving stolen property - so that they are always charged as misdemeanors. The bill was revised to reset the grand theft threshold to $950, higher than the current $400, which was set in 1982, but significantly lower than the $2,500 that the Senate approved last week.

What's left in the bill are changes to the state's parole system so that some low- and moderate-risk offenders would not be subject to parole revocation; allowing certain felons who violate probation to serve time in county jails; and allowing the early release of inmates who complete certain rehabilitation programs such as earning GEDs.

The grand theft change was made in "response to concerns from the law enforcement community," Murphy said.

At least two of the provisions that were removed from the legislation could re-emerge as bills for a later vote by the Legislature - those calling for a sentencing commission and for allowing sick and elderly inmates to serve their terms outside prison walls, Murphy said.

Withholding judgment

Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Steinberg, said her boss is withholding judgment on the Assembly's revisions until "an entire package that puts public safety first and provides significant reform, and implements the budget" arrives in the Senate.

Schwarzenegger, frustrated by their inaction, criticized the Assembly members Wednesday for not "having guts" to approve his prison package.

The prison overhaul stems from last month's budget deal to close a $24 billion deficit, in part by reducing prison spending by $1.2 billion.

The prison package includes $665 million worth of savings from the Republican governor's actions, such commuting sentences of some nonviolent illegal immigrant inmates and handing them over to federal authorities for deportation.



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