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August 26, 2009

"Lawmakers more worried about safe seats than safe streets"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective opinion piece in the Los Angeles Daily News that is effectively attacking the California legislature from making the hard choices that are required to reform the state's sentencing and prison problems.  Here are snippets:

Our dysfunctional state legislators are doing it again — so afraid of appearing soft on crime, they are quaking at the hard decisions necessary to balance the state budget....

California lawmakers currently spend 10 percent of the state general fund on prisons, about what they spend on education. The state spends about $27,000 a year to lock up each of its 167,000 prisoners.

Before deciding to postpone action on prison costs, the Assembly ripped sections out of the Senate plan that reduced the number of inmates released by 10,000.  That would leave the budget $200 million in the hole.

Speaker Bass also jettisoned a plan to allow home detention with electronic monitoring for inmates who are 60 or older, medically incapacitated or have less than one year to serve on their sentence. A proposal to allow prisoners to earn up to four months of early release for inmates completing rehabilitation programs was added by Bass, but she pulled a provision that would change several property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  The changes were designed to mollify opposition by associations representing prosecutors and police chiefs.

In the end, Sacramento lawmakers lacked the nerve to do their jobs. Why should they?... Maybe they hope if they stall long enough, the problem will be solved by the federal judges who earlier this month ordered the state to cut its prison population by 25 percent within two years, or the court would do the cutting.

With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, conditions in California prisons were ruled cruel and unusual punishment by the panel of judges.  An example is the Chino prison riot a few weeks ago. Chino holds 5,900 inmates; it was built to house 3,000....

Republicans and Democrats should be working together to solve the prison-cutting problem.  There should be compromising, a lot more give and take.  Or lawmakers can be safe and wait for federal judges to do their jobs for them.

I found this piece particularly noteworthy because it recognizes the connection between dysfunctional state politics and so-called activist federal judges.  I have little doubt that the panel of federal judges who ordered prison population reductions in California want state lawmakers to decide exactly how such a reduction will be achieved.  But, because state lawmakers are unable or unwilling to make hard political choices in the form of reducing prison populations or raising taxes to fund current expenses, these issue necessarily get punted back to federal courts.

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August 26, 2009 at 12:22 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Big gap in the logic of this opinion piece. The riot at CIM-Chino had nothing to do with overcrowding or allegedly constitutionally defective conditions. The riot was a result of internal prison politics between Southern Hispanic and African American inmates over who controls South Los Angeles.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Aug 26, 2009 2:26:05 PM

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