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Calif. Assembly approves plan to cut prison budget

By Don Thompson
Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Assembly narrowly passed a plan Monday to cut the state corrections budget by $1 billion, despite Republican lawmakers who assailed the measure as a threat to public safety.

Legislative leaders said they will need to make more cuts to the prisons budget before their scheduled adjournment next week.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, urges lawmakers to approve a prison reform measure before the Senate at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, urges lawmakers to approve a prison reform measure before the Senate at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, removed provisions from the Senate bill that proved to be the most controversial, the early release of ill inmates or some of those age 60 or older, as well as a proposal to reduce certain property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. She said her members may consider those provisions separately in coming days.

The revised measure passed the Assembly on a 41-35 vote, the bare majority needed in the 80-member house. No Republicans supported the bill.

Senate President Darrell Steinberg said he won't allow a vote on the Assembly's scaled-down bill unless the Assembly approves some of the additional provisions that passed the Senate Aug. 20.

That includes creating a powerful independent commission to review California's long-term sentencing policy.

"The Assembly took a good first step today but it's not a complete package," Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, said in a statement.

Both houses of the Legislature must agree on cuts to the state prison budget to close the last piece of the state's revised spending plan passed in July.

Bass, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said she is meeting with law enforcement and other groups on ways to make up $200 million that was lost when she removed some of the Senate provisions. She said she needs time to negotiate changes that would make the measures more palatable for her members, many of whom are running for higher office next year.

"I'm all about the art of compromise. What's new about that?" Bass told reporters.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week accused Assembly members of lacking "the guts" to join the Senate in approving a comprehensive plan.

"I'm not going to respond to the governor's cheap shot," Bass said. "My members had some angst about the bill."

Republicans used a two-hour debate to argue that certain provisions of that bill would allow dangerous felons back on the street. The provisions include giving inmates more early release credits for completing rehabilitation programs, and lessening supervision of many parolees, making it harder to send parole violators back to prison.

"These people are preying on young women and young girls. We don't want this in our cities and in our communities," said Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point.

Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal of Long Beach countered the state cannot afford a system that is overcrowded and widely regarded as dysfunctional.

"We can't let this system bankrupt us," she said.

The legislative tug-of-war is a holdover from the revised state budget Schwarzenegger signed in July. At the time, cutting the state prison budget was part of the plan he reached with lawmakers to close a massive state budget deficit, but they left the details for later.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the Assembly bill contains "much-needed reforms ... but there are still questions about how it addresses our overcrowding crisis and our budget."

Schwarzenegger's plan would have reduced California's inmate population by 27,000 this fiscal year through a combination of steps. Some inmates would have been released before their full sentences had been served, while certain convicts would have been diverted to county jails instead of being sent to state prison.

The Assembly's version retains some elements of Schwarzenegger's original plan. It includes awarding early release credits to inmates who complete education or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and changing supervision for thousands of parolees.

The remaining high-risk parolees would receive more intensive supervision. Juan Arambula, an independent from Fresno who sponsored the bill.

The Assembly speaker's office said its scaled-down plan will save the state about $1 billion, $200 million less than the Senate version.

It also would keep about 10,000 more inmates in state prisons.

That presents a potential clash with a separate mandate from the federal courts, which have ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 over the next two years as a way to improve inmate medical and mental health care.

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