Yesterday, the California Assembly passed legislation to establish that state's first independent sentencing commission. According to this thoroughly reported story in the Mercury News, the vote was divided strictly along party lines with Republicans assailing the legislation, AB160, as a (surprise!) "soft on crime" proposal and also asserting, for good measure, that the legislation is constitutionally suspect because it arrogates to an independent, unelected body the authority traditionally reposed in the legislative branch. Further, the articles provides a typically schizophrenic and transparently duplicitous quote from opponent Assemblyman Anthony Adams: "I understand the intent here; the intent is a good one, but a commission designed to let people out early is exactly the wrong answer."
You may recall that a senate counterpart, SB110, sponsored by Sen. Gloria Romero, previously passed the California Senate by 24-14. Romero's bill would include 20 members, including elected and appointed officials, academic experts, a county mental health director, a local sheriff and a representative of crime victims, among others. Commissioners would create a sentencing data clearinghouse and present the Legislature with revised sentencing guidelines. One of the major differences between the two measures is that Assembly bill requires a simple majority vote of the Legislature to overturn the commission's sentencing guidelines, while
Romero's bill calls for a two-thirds vote.
Over the coming months, legislators in both houses will decide whether to adopt one or the other, reject both or come up with a compromise they can send to Governor Schwarzenegger.
The title of another fine article discussing California's corrections debacle pretty much says it all: "When Incarceration Trumps Education: State Budget Will Soon Divert More Funds To Prison Costs Than To Higher Education." How's this for a dubious distinction: for the first time the state will spend more on its prisons than on higher education. Revealed in the May revisions of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget, the state will spend $10 billion on prisons in fiscal 2007-08, a nine percent increase from last year. Spending on higher education rose to $12 billion — a six percent increase. Based on those trends, California’s prison budget will exceed spending on the state’s universities and community colleges in five years. No other large state in the nation spends nearly as much on prisons as on higher education. The article quotes one of my faves, Barb Tombs, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, who stated that “California needs to make sure they’re putting the right people in prison for the right amount."