21 Votes for Progress

(Sen. Steinberg managed to push the prison package through, but we’re waiting for some movement in the Assembly. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

Four days after the passage of the historic prison reform package in the State Senate, it appears likely that the package must be amended if it has any chance of survival in the State Assembly.

Make no mistake about it – this is one of the toughest votes any lawmaker will have to make in his or her career. My boss, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, talks a little about that to the right.

Everyone agrees that the current system is unsustainable. Prison costs have spiraled out of control because of inmate overcrowding and growing medical costs. In Chino alone – where inmates rioted two weeks ago – there are 6,000 prisoners in a facility designed to accommodate 3,000. And a federal judge is threatening to release over 40,000 prisoners if we don’t enact common sense corrections reform soon.

What’s more, the Legislature must make some adjustments to prison policy to implement the $1.2 billion in corrections cuts in the July revision. The reform package will result in savings of about $600 million; the other half can be implemented by the Governor on his own.

There really is no choice but to act. Last week 21 Democratic Senators did exactly that.

Edit by Brian: See the flip for more.

On the day before the vote last week, Senator Steinberg (disclosure: my boss) led the Senate Democratic caucus through a thorough discussion of the political ramifications of passing the prison reform package. Even with the clear potential that the package may stall in the Assembly, Democrats in the Senate decided that while there were valid policy arguments on both sides, the crisis in our corrections system called for genuine action. They took the brave vote. That ought to be recognized.

The bill passed out of the State Senate on Thursday with 21 out of 25 Democrats in support.

Members who voted “Yes” agreed that letting old, infirm and soon-to-be-released non-violent offenders out a year early represented no danger (with electronic monitoring) and saved California money. But those first year savings were a small down payment on the billions that will be saved with sentencing reform. See Senator Roderick Wright make a similar argument:

No one should underestimate the importance and the long-term benefit of a Sentencing Reform Commission, which will make sense out of the patchwork system that isn’t working very well and is costing billions unnecessarily.

In addition, the reform package includes parole reform that will make our streets safer and focus more attention in our prisons on incarcerating dangerous criminals. In the current system, there’s only one parole agent for every 70 parolees. The bill passed by the Senate will lower that number to 45 parolees for every agent, allowing agents a way to better monitor and help those who under the current system would be likely to re-offend.

Where the reform package goes from here depends on the political situation in the Assembly. Speaker Bass has been a shrewd fighter for reforming California’s corrections system in her five years in the Assembly – including being the author of a bill to establish a sentencing commission this year.

She faces a tough road in her house, but perhaps the Senate’s bold action will ultimately ensure that California gets a final product that brings fiscal responsibility to our prison system while keeping our communities safe.

One thought on “21 Votes for Progress”

  1. Which Assemblymembers need lobbying to pass the best possible bill? What are the hangups?

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