Assembly OKs Prisoner Dump

MARCH 18, 2011


On a straight party-line vote, California Assembly Democrats approved a public safety bill on Thursday that Republicans warned will dump inmates out of overcrowded state prisons and into overcrowded county jails — or release the prisoners early.

“As a mother of three young children, I refuse to support a bill that will put child abuse offenders back on the street,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, one of several GOP members denouncing AB109. “That is intolerable for us to allow bills like this that will put thousands and thousands of criminals, including child abuse offenders, on the street.”

The bill is part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan to transfer responsibilities and services from the state to counties and cities in an effort to save money and improve control and accountability. Proponents said that additional funds will be dispensed to compensate local governments for the added expenses, but specifics are not included in the bill.

AB109 makes several statutory changes affecting low-level criminals, adult parolees and juvenile offenders:

* The definition of a felony is downgraded from mandating death or time in state prison to allowing time in jail for more than one year.

* Counties are allowed to expand home detention electronic monitoring instead of incarcerating criminals.

* Counties are allowed to pay the state to house felony adult criminals in state prison and juveniles in state facilities.

* Inmates can get out of jail sooner by knocking two days off of their sentence for every four days of good behavior.

* Parole supervision is transferred from the state to counties for adult criminals who committed less serious felonies. Supervision could end after six months.

Something Different

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the Budget Committee sponsoring the bill, called it “one of the boldest ideas for government proposed in many years.” He argued that it makes sense to try something different, given the failed record of state prisons, which cost $9 billion annually, about 10 percent of the state’s general-fund budget.

Blumenfeld said:

California has a giant corrections system that has fallen down on many levels. They are in federal receivership because of a failure to provide adequate health care. They have a recidivism of over 60 percent. All the while they suck up general-fund dollars. For all we spend on correction, we deserve more results. We can’t tinker around the edges. We need to think big. Public safety realignment will not take place without appropriations from the legislature. This was a key concern from counties in hearings.

We have to make a choice: Stay the course with less than optimum results, or have safe streets and reduction in gang activity. I know it’s subject to a lot of hyperbole, a lot of temptation to make this seem scary to people. The reality is that all of law enforcement has been a part of the process in crafting it. Not a single law enforcement agency is opposed. Probation officers are in full support of this. Trust them that this is a good bill. It’s going to save us money in the long run. It helps the process to realign in a more sensitive way for innovation to take place on the local level.

Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, led the GOP attack against the bill, which he said will release 28,000 inmates and parolees from state control in the coming year and another 68,000 in the year after that.

Nielsen said:

This is people’s lives. This is scary. This is real. It compromises three strikes. Some of the conditions have merit; some could be employed over time. But not in one fell swoop, as will be the case here. The delightful, almost blithely stated shift to local government — how wonderful. Ask any of your local sheriffs if they have excess capacity. Ask your judges how will their courts deal with it. They do not have a way.

Thousands of gang members will be roaming our streets under provisions of this bill. You’ll make some people happy; they will not be in free society. The inmates in state prison will be cheering and gleeful — they will get extra good-time credits. This is no casual vote. This is not about the budget. This is about a grievous injustice to the people of California who will become victims and the victims already in place who will have their justice denied.

Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, pointed out that state prisons house about 17,000 illegal aliens at an annual cost of $885 million. He said:

Instead of kicking criminals down to the local level, why don’t we take a look at the population of people in our prisons who came here illegally and committed a crime? All of us could probably agree that that is a group we don’t want here. Perhaps we can figure out how to deport them, and then they are not on our books anymore.

Linda Helderman, R-Fresno, listed several crimes that she said would no longer be considered violent felonies, including assault by force, vehicular manslaughter under the influence, female genital mutilation, hate crimes and lynching.

Said Don Wagner, R-Irvine, noting that the final version of the 662-page bill had just been released, “I doubt any one of us who is asked to vote on it today has read those 662 pages.”

Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, warned that criminals convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine could be out of jail in a day under the new legislation. “That’s going to be a hard sale back in our districts,” he said.

High Recidivism

After several more Republicans raised objections, Charles Calderon, D-Montebello, said:

I want to bring us down from the stratosphere. The recidivism rate is 85-90 percent. They are being released from prison this year standing alongside you and your community’s mothers and fathers and families and children, and they haven’t been rehabilitated. Because the prisons are overcrowded. Because there’s no money to rehabilitate them. This realignment plan will not cause them to go free. They will serve their time in another prison called jail. It can be for five years or 10 years or any number the judge wants to impose. That will free up our dollars so we can start looking at rehabilitation, so we can provide some improvement for our communities. Three strikes — it probably turns a three-strike matter into a four-strike matter, if it does anything at all.

Calderon also listed some of the crimes that will be downgraded, including making threats of harm against elected officials. “Not sure that I really care about that,” he said. “Felony child abuse — it’s a wobbler. Meaning that the district attorney has the option of filing as a misdemeanor or a felony and will make that determination based on the severity of the crime. I don’t remember the last time we lynched anybody. Sure, lynching somebody is not a crime that sends you to prison. But they will still spend a prison term at the local level.”

Norma Torres, D-Pomona, said that a criminal committing felony child abuse likely to create great bodily injury will not be sent to county jail and neither will those committing vehicle manslaughter while intoxicated.

Blumenfield had the last word, saying:

This doesn’t change the enforcement on any crime. It doesn’t change the punishment of any crime. The question is where the person will serve, whether in prison or local jails. This idea that we don’t trust our sheriffs and local folks to decide who can get out or can’t get out is counterintuitive. They are most accountable to the people. You elect your sheriff in many cases. Our recidivism rate is the highest in the nation. That is not protecting us. They are coming out of prison and committing more crimes and winding back in prison. This bill will make our communities safer. This is an innovative way to shake things up and make us safer in the long run.

The bill passed 51-26 with Republicans casting all of the no votes.

Tags assigned to this article:
budgetcrimeDave RobertsJerry Brownprisons

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