Thousands of Prisoners Could be Released
The California Senate, after a highly charged debate, approved a plan Thursday to trim the state's prison population by 27,000 inmates, acting over the objections of Republican lawmakers and law enforcement groups.

Democratic leaders huddled with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Thursday night as they struggled to find enough votes in the Assembly.

The Senate-approved measure, intended to cut $1.2 billion from corrections spending, would let thousands of inmates be released early from state prison or avoid prison time altogether.

The bill's fate was uncertain late Thursday. The state Assembly delayed meeting for hours after the legislation squeaked through the Senate.

While the bill needed only a simple majority to pass, Democratic Assembly Speaker Karen Bass was having difficulty rounding up enough votes. Republicans, the minority party in both houses, oppose an early release program.

The challenge in finding sufficient support was illustrated by the example of three Democratic Assembly members who are planning to run for state attorney general next year. They are reluctant to vote for any bill that might make them appear soft on crime, thus handing an advantage to their opponents.

The governor is "committed to working with the Legislature to pass a package that puts public safety first, avoids early release, and achieves the necessary budgetary savings," Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt David said after the governor met with Bass, of Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

The administration previously said failure of the bill would force California to find other ways to release inmates, in part because federal judges this summer ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 over two years.

Republicans offered angry denouncements as the debate unfolded earlier Thursday on the Senate floor. They said provisions to reduce some crimes to misdemeanors, release certain inmates before they have completed their sentences and ease conditions for parole would be a threat to public safety.

Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, said he could guarantee a future ballot initiative to repeal the bill if it becomes law.

"This is such an over-the-top threat to public safety to the people of California, that I guarantee there will be a referendum," he said.

The debate over prison spending and California's chronic inmate overcrowding took on renewed urgency when more than 1,000 inmates rioted Aug. 8 at the California Institution for Men in Southern California. The prison was designed to hold about half as many inmates, although investigators weren't certain crowding helped spark the racially charged riot.

The measure passed the Senate on a 21-19 vote. It had just enough votes to pass, with four Democrats and all Republicans opposed.

"This is an opportunity to do better and to begin to change the embarrassing fact that we spend more money on prisons than we do the University of California system," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento.

The bill being considered Thursday was a holdover from the budget-balancing deal lawmakers and Schwarzenegger struck a month ago. They said at the time that cutting $1.2 billion from the corrections budget was part of their plan to close a deficit then estimated at $26 billion, but they did not detail how those cuts would be made.

It's those details lawmakers are now debating during their first week back from summer break.

If also approved by the Assembly, the governor's proposal would release or divert from state prisons 27,000 inmates in the current fiscal year and another 10,000 in the fiscal year that begins next July.

It would do so through a range of measures:

- Inmates with less than 12 months to serve, who are over age 60 or who are medically incapacitated could be released from prison and given home detention with electronic monitoring.

- Sentences for certain property crimes will be lowered to misdemeanors, meaning convicts won't have to spend time in prison. Those include vehicle theft, petty theft with a prior conviction, receiving stolen property and check-kiting, a scam that primarily targets banks with fraudulent deposits.

- Allow more inmates to gain early release by completing educational, vocational or substance abuse rehabilitation programs.

- Ease supervision for thousands of parolees, making it more difficult to send them back to prison for violations.

The package also would establish a commission to review California's sentencing guidelines. Opponents fear its primary mission would be to determine whether some sentences could be lessened as a way to take pressure off an overcrowded prison system.

The new guidelines would be due by July 2012. The changes would take effect automatically unless they were rejected by the governor and a majority vote in the Legislature.

Republicans noted that most other states with sentencing commissions require their legislatures to approve the guidelines before they take effect, rather than forcing the legislature to repeal a sentencing change after the fact.

Sen. Gloria Romero, a victim of a violent robbery in 1995, said California should join the federal government and 22 other states that have created sentencing commissions.

"There is a need to bring a smartness. Toughness alone will not bring us out of this prison crisis," said Romero, a Democrat from Los Angeles who has pushed for a sentencing commission for years. "We either do it or the judges will not only do it for us, they'll do it to us."