Politics & Government

Governor may shy from prison bills

SACRAMENTO -- With the legislative session heading into the home stretch, an ambitious plan to overhaul California's criminal sentencing structure is facing dim prospects in the Governor's Office.

Two bills are circulating in the Legislature that would create a California sentencing commission with the ability to change the length of prison terms. But a spokesman for Gov. Schwarzenegger suggested it is highly unlikely that either commission bill will get signed into law.

"We're open to debate, but the governor has serious reservations about what's being proposed in the Legislature," Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said in an interview. "He thinks that final authority [on sentencing laws] should be with elected officials who are accountable to the people."

State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, wrote one of two sentencing commission bills now pending in the Capitol and the one that legislative staff believes has the best chance of making it to the governor's desk.

She said the formation of a sentencing commission represents perhaps the state's last and best hope to convince a specially-empaneled three-judge federal court from slamming a population cap on California's massively overcrowded prison system.

"I look forward to working with the Governor's Office on this, and the governor directly," Romero said. "The question to me is whether the governor accepts the proposal from the Legislature or one that is forced down our throats by the court."

Romero's bill has cleared the Senate and is awaiting a floor vote in the Assembly.

Similar legislation written by Assembly Member Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, was approved by the lower chamber but has since been sidetracked to the Senate Rules Committee.

Schwarzenegger, in laying out his prison proposals last December, asked for the creation of a sentencing panel that would make nonbinding recommendations to elected leaders. First up on the commission's agenda in the governor's plan would have been a look at the parole system.

The prison legislation that Schwarzenegger ultimately signed, Assembly Bill 900, dropped all talk of a sentencing commission.

In signing the $7.9 billion bill that added 53,000 beds to the state and local correctional systems, Schwarzenegger said that the sentencing and parole reform proposals still would be "on the table" as the legislative session moved forward.

Romero's amended bill would empower a California sentencing commission to establish alternative terms for 274 specific statutes, covering a volume of drug laws in the Health and Safety Code as well as both property and violent crimes in the Penal Code. Burglary, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, even child molestation, would come in for sentence reviews, as would drug dealing and theft.

It would set up a 20-member commission -- 16 of whom would vote -- including the corrections secretary, the state attorney general, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, prosecutors, crime victims advocates, labor representatives, inmates rights lawyers, academics and other members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.

Romero has proposed additional amendments that hadn't been included in the bill as of Friday. One would enable the Legislature to throw out the commission's recommendations on a majority vote. The initial version of the Romero bill would have required a two-thirds vote. Under the amendments, the commission also would be barred from tinkering with any voter-approved initiatives, such as the state's "three-strikes" law.

More than 20 states, as well as the federal government and the District of Columbia, already have sentencing commissions. Supporters say they bring consistency to sentencing, increasing time and reserving scarce prison space for the worst offenders, while expanding alternatives for lesser miscreants.

Law enforcement groups and legislative Republicans have blasted the idea of a sentencing commission, echoing concerns raised by the Governor's Office that the panel would strip the Legislature of its foremost public safety responsibility.

"Even if it's a majority vote, what you have here is nine cocooned elites ... who will be able to rewrite core public safety laws for California," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association. "The legislative oversight is simply illusory. It will take a herculean effort to overturn the recommendations of the commission."