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Calif. Senate Passes Plan to Release Inmates Early

— 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.

The proposal supported by the Legislature's Democratic majority and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would let thousands of inmates be released early from state prison or avoid prison time altogether.

It is intended to cut $1.2 billion from corrections spending as part of a state deficit-cutting deal struck last month.

Passage was less certain in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, which was to take up the measure later Thursday.

Republicans offered angry denouncements 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, a Republican from Los Angeles County, said he could guarantee a future ballot initiative to repeal the bill if it becomes law.

"This is the Legislature taking away what the people have called for. This is such an over-the-top threat to public safety to the people of California, that I guarantee there will be a referendum ... because the people are not going to let this happen to them," Runner said.

The debate is a holdover from state budget negotiations earlier this summer. At the time they closed a massive deficit, lawmakers agreed to cut $1.2 billion from the prison system without saying how to do it. Lawmakers had agreed to leave the details until they returned from summer recess this week.

Democrats said the plan would improve a dysfunctional criminal justice system.

"We return 70 percent of all parolees back to prison," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento. "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."

The measure passed the Senate on a 21-19 vote after a 3 1/2 hour debate. It had just enough votes to pass, with four Democrats and all Republicans opposed.

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.

All but two of the Senate's 15 Republicans spoke against the bill.

"If this bill becomes law, the people of California will become less safe, pure and simple," added Sen. Tony Strickland, a Republican from Thousand Oaks.

An equally impassioned Democratic Sen. Rod Wright recalled being shot at on the streets of Inglewood in Los Angeles County.

"The current system ain't workin' either," said Wright. "We're not really being safe with the system we have."

In the Assembly, three Democratic lawmakers are planning to run for state attorney general next year and are reluctant to vote for any bill that will reduce criminal sentences out of fear that they will appear soft on crime.

Adding to the uncertainty is a provision announced Wednesday that establishes a commission to review California's sentencing guidelines. Its primary mission will 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.

Details about the commission were made public Wednesday. The last-minute timing alone was a deal-killer for the California Police Chiefs Association, which had been prepared to support other portions of the package, said Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, the group's president. District attorneys also announced their opposition.

Republicans also objected to the makeup of the proposed panel because it would include an ex-felon as a nonvoting member, equal to crime victims.

"Is this something that came out of Mad Magazine?" asked Runner, who has authored several anti-crime initiatives aimed at sex offenders and gang members.

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."

Schwarzenegger's office said failure of the bill would leave a $1.2 billion hole in the state's budget and force California to find other ways to release inmates. A panel of federal judges earlier this summer ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 over two years.

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