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GOP legislators push bills to roll back realignment

8:47 PM, Mar 19, 2013   |    comments
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At some point in Tuesday's news conference held by Republican state legislators, the rhetoric turned from simply fixing the state's 2011 realignment law to completely scrapping it.

"We need this opportunity to tweak it," said Assembly GOP leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare.

To which, a few minutes later, Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama County, said: "A tweak won't do it, folks."

Somewhere in between those two viewpoints lies the policy and political goals behind the GOP bills being promoted as common sense changes to a crime and punishment law that's now often invoked in news stories about some of the most heinous crimes in California.

13 separate bills were touted in the event, each seeking to modify... or in some cases, undo... parts of the law pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Jerry Brown.  While the governor has argued its merits on a number of levels, the proposal was largely driven by the need to reduce the state's prison population -- a requirement of federal judges who now oversee inmate health care.

On that front, it's worked.  State data shows 144,138 inmates were in California prisons the week the realignment law went into effect; as of last week, that number had dropped to 119,401.  The decrease is due largely to the law in question -- Assembly Bill 109 -- which keeps a number of new offenders in local jails and under county supervision rather than sending them to state prison.

But since 2011, several notable cases have raised questions about whether some convicted felons are falling through the cracks.

The tone of Tuesday's Capitol news conference turned emotional on the story of Brandy Arreola, a Stockton woman brutally beaten by a former boyfriend who, at the time, was supposed to be serving a 100 day sentence for violating the terms of his parole.

Republican senator Nielsen called the young woman, sitting in a wheelchair and left with very little ability to speak from the attack, the "face" of AB 109.

Nielsen, who has predicted dire consequences for the 2011 law from the outset, then ratcheted up his rhetoric.

"I'll argue no bill ever passed by this Legislature has had more dire, and severe, and egregious consequences," he said.

Later, apparently referring to a recent Associated Press report that more sex offenders have gone missing on parole, Nielsen said this: 

"The sex offenders are taking off their bracelets and throwing them down on the desk of the parole agent and saying, 'What are you gonna do about it?'"

But the GOP legislators who spoke at the news conference didn't mention what some analysts say is a fundamental truth at the heart of California's realignment experience: the success or failure depends on the choices made by law enforcement and the courts in each of the state's 58 counties.

"It's really hard to be able to say, on a statewide basis, whether realignment is successful or not successful," said Drew Soderborg, who monitors criminal justice issues for the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.  "The real question is how is a given county implementing realignment."

Soderborg says for some counties, the path is harder than others. Jails in several communities, for example, are under either court or self-imposed orders to reduce overcrowding -- conditions that, in many instances, existed long before the realignment changes were crafted in Sacramento.

Some counties have been more aggressive when it comes to trying what's known as 'split sentencing,' where a felon serves part of his or her time in jail, and the other part on supervised release.  Analyst Soderborgh says about 25 percent of the state's realigned punishment, on average, is now being administered this way -- though in some counties, including populous Los Angeles, its use is much lower.

The GOP bills now pending in both houses (and one has already been rejected) focus on returning more violent offenders to state prison.  The Brown administration says that won't work.

"Any bills that seek to change public safety realignment and that would raise the prison population need to be reconciled with the federal court order to reduce prison crowding," said Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

And therein lies the rub: the courts continue to say that the state must reduce its prison population even further, as part of the long legal fight over inmate health care conditions.

Brown is currently seeking a modification of that cap. Republicans, based on crimes reported across the state, say it's not enough.

"If we're going to defy a court order, so be it," said Assembly GOP leader Conway.  "But I think the public is crying out for our attention on this."


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