Prison Spending Cuts Pose a Political Problem and, Therefore, a Math Problem

The budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, assumes that state prison spending will be reduced by nearly $1.2 billion – but doesn’t say how more than $631 million of that savings will be achieved.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says only that it will be accomplished by new policies – “reforms” — that will lower inmate and parolee populations. The Senate is scheduled to vote on such a measure, AB 14 3X, on August 20.

The bill’s provisions, which are estimated to save $524 million, include increasing inmate early release credits for those who meet rehabilitation program milestones, creating a sentencing commission and making low and moderate risk parolees with non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offenses no longer subject to parole revocation.

Casting a vote to reduce prison spending by more than $524 million by allowing the release of more inmates sooner and less scrutiny of parolees is politically problematic. Slashing public safety spending, releasing dangerous felons into the community and soft-on-crime are common epithets in campaign mailers or commercials by opponents of lawmakers who cast such a vote.

The political peril is compounded if a lawmaker seeks statewide office.

Voting for a $524 million reduction is politically better than s $1.2 billion cut. But not much.

The GOP governor – without legislative action — can reduce prison spending by $555 million through the following actions:

 — Commute the sentences of some undocumented inmates and then deport them. He estimates a savings of $182 million by doing so.

— Reduce programs for inmates and parolees to save $175 million. Among the expected casualties are rehabilitation, educational and vocational training        programs.

— Lower operational costs $148 million by “a one?time reduction for facility repairs, headquarters savings, additional efficiencies within the operations of the    juvenile programs and other operational savings.”

— Lower the rates paid to doctors, nurses and hospitals that provide medical care for inmates.

“Various reforms intended to reduce prison and parole populations,” will account for the rest of the savings, Schwarzenegger says in his summary of the current year’s budget.

“The reforms include alternative custody options for certain offenders within the last 12 months of their sentence, inmate credit earning opportunities, various parole reforms related to who is on parole and how parolees are supervised, community corrections strategies, and sentencing changes for property crimes.”

This legislative and administrative activity is occurring one month from when a three-judge panel expects the state to submit a plan to reduce the state prison population – approximately 167,000 inmates – by 40,000 persons over the next two years.

The panel ruled in February that the state had to lower the inmate population in order to provide prisoners with a constitutional level of medical and mental health care.

In early August, the panel issued a highly critical 184-page order and gave the state 45 days to submit a release plan. Sen. Tom Harmon routinely brings the looming deadline to the public’s attention through press releases. Not surprising for a GOP candidate for Attorney General in 2010.

While the Senate is scheduled to vote a bill, it’s unclear when the Assembly plans to take up the measure. And its unclear if there are sufficient Democratic votes to pass it since Republicans in either house oppose cuts in prison spending.

There are 50 Democrats in the lower house. A bill reducing prison spending requires 41 votes. That allows Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, to give “passes” to nine of her members.

Certainly four Democrats Bass would allow not to vote on the bill are those targeted for defeat in 2010 by Republicans – the incumbents of Assembly Districts, 10, 15, 78 and 80.

They are, respectively: Alyson Huber of El Dorado Hills, Joan Buchanan of Alamo, Marty Block of San Diego and Mannie Perez of Coachella. ?

Certainly the three Assembly members running for Attorney General would want to be spared from having to vote for the bill. The Attorney General is commonly perceived as being California’s “Top Cop.”

They are: Ted Lieu of Torrance, Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara and Alberto Torrico of Fremont.

In June, Fresno Assemblyman Juan Arambula, a moderate Democrat, re-registered as an independent. In July, he voted with his former Democratic colleagues to close an estimated $24 billion hole in the budget. But whether that willingness extends to prison cuts that will release more parolees into his Central Valley district is uncertain.

Among other Democrats, casting a perceived “anti-public safety” vote would not be a popular in the districts of Cathleen Galgiani of Tracy and Anna Caballero of Salinas.

The governor holds little or no sway with Assembly Republicans so the odds are against him convincing any GOP lawmakers to vote for the bill. That leaves Speaker Bass with a math problem.


Filed under: Budget and Economy


  1. Great idea on appointing a felon to the sentencing panel in the bill now being debated in the Assembly. I would recommend Pat Nolan, Clay Jackson or Joe Montoya.
    Alan Robbins as a backup.

    Comment by W. Brown — 8.20.2009 @ 4:06 pm

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