CA Senate approves prison bill

August 20, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
In Sacramento, there was a wrestling match over how to punish California's criminals and still balance the budget. Thousands of inmates could be freed under a plan approved Thursday under the state Senate. It would save $1 billion.

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The major prison reform narrowly passed by the state Senate changes how California punishes some criminals. It aims to save the state money by reducing the inmate population by roughly 27,000 during this budget year and 10,000 more next year.

It allows the governor to commute the sentences of non-citizen felons and turn them over to the feds for deportation. It also gives early release to low-risk offenders who earn it through education or substance abuse programs, eases parole supervision -- making it harder to go back to prison -- lowers certain property crimes to misdemeanors, and creates a commission empowered to change sentencing laws. The plan supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., and Democrats sparked impassioned debate from Republicans, who say the crime rate will rise.

"You can't assure me, anyone who's even thinking about voting for this measure, you can't assure me that lives will not be put at risk," said State Senator Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield.

Democrats argue tough-on-crime penalties are bankrupting the state and that the best use of limited resources is to concentrate on the really dangerous criminals.

"The biggest increases in the state budget, over the last several years, have been the cost of prisons," said State Senator Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego.

Governor Schwarzenegger says California has to find a way to ease prison overcrowding or federal judges will do it on their own. The state has already been ordered to reduce the prison population by 40,000.

"Something needs to be done. Of course, as you know, it's very hard because it's kind of risky, politically risky to talk about those issues, but we need to do what is right for the state," said Gov. Schwarzenegger.

The prison bill now heads to the Assembly where its fate is unclear. Several Democrats want to run for Attorney General and a yes vote would make them appear soft on crime.

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