For the past two weeks, the state Legislature's been considering prison-reform legislation that would put thousands of low-risk prisoners into house arrest and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars. But the bill stalled briefly in the Assembly because Democrats in swing districts are frightened of it. San Diego County happens to have such a legislator, Assemblymember Marty Block, who's refused to discuss prison reform with CityBeat. Specifically, we wanted to know his opinion on the bill that passed Aug. 20 in the state Senate.
After a few e-mails back and forth, Block spokesperson David Glanzer finally responded last Friday, “At this point it is too early for the Assemblymember to comment on the bill as it's pretty nebulous at this point. There doesn't seem to be a clear consensus yet as to what it will end up looking like. So he will wait until such time as there is something more concrete that he can review and then comment on.”
Actually, there was nothing nebulous about the Senate bill, which is what we asked about. It was as concrete as concrete can be. We pointed that out to Glanzer, but he hasn't replied.
The Senate bill would update the value threshold for property crimes to reflect increases in inflation since 1982; give inmates more chances to chip away at their sentences though participation in rehab, education or vocational training; change three crimes (petty theft with prior, writing bad checks and receiving stolen property) from felony to misdemeanor; make low- and moderate-risk parolees ineligible for parole revocation and give serious-risk parolees a chance to reduce their parole time through drug treatment; authorize the release into home detention of inmates who are 60 or older, sick or have less than a year left on their prison terms; and set up a commission to recommend changes to current sentencing guidelines. It would save taxpayers nearly $525 million annually and move as many as 37,000 inmates out of prisons with two years.
Would Block have voted for that bill? We don't know, because he was afraid to answer the question. The reason, we're left to assume, is that Block is among a handful of Democrats who either are running for attorney general in 2010 or—in his case—represent swing districts that may be targeted by the Republican Party. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass refused to call for a vote on the Senate version because she couldn't muster enough Democratic votes. Block's refusal to answer our question compels us to believe that he was among the no votes on the Senate version.
If that's true, he's either in lockstep with the hysterical Republicans who are telling us that the bill will result in “mayhem on the streets” (actual quote from Sen. Jeff Denham) and widespread attacks on our womenfolk (paraphrase of Assemblywoman Diane Harkey), or he's prioritizing his party's fortunes in 2010 over doing the right thing on legislation that would, in our view, provide budget relief, reduce taxpayer expense, comply with a federal court mandate and, yes, maybe even make California safer because prisons would be less crowded and inmates would be encouraged to rehabilitate.
The state Department of Correction and Rehabilitation must trim $1.2 billion from its budget to meet the recent state spending plan, and federal judges have ordered California to reduce the state prison population by 44,000 because it can't provide adequate medical care. In short, California's tough-on-crime policies are unsustainable; we can't afford to build and staff the number of prisons our sentencing laws require.
On Monday, the Assembly finally voted on a watered-down bill that removed provisions from the Senate version that worried vulnerable Democrats: releasing thousands of low-risk inmates to home detention, listing the threshold for property crimes, making certain felonies misdemeanors and establishing a sentencing commission. The Assembly bill would save less money and reduce the prison population by only 17,000. Block voted no.
Block is clearly running scared in a non-presidential election, when voters tend to be more conservative, and he's likely worried about swing voters who might be swayed by 30-second ads portraying him as soft on crime. Block declined to stand with Democrats on one of the most sensible bills to come down the pike recently. Voters should remember that next year. If he thinks his district requires Republican-style policies, voters might as well just vote for the real thing.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story reported that Block failed to cast a vote on the Assembly bill. That was inaccurate, and the editorial has been corrected. We apologize for the error. CityBeat contacted Block's office about what we thought was a failure to cast a vote, but we didn't hear back until after the editorial was published.
Editor's Note 2: We may have been too quick to correct our editorial. We have two documents in hand. Both are a rundowns of each Assembly member's vote. One is time-stamped 4:07 p.m. on Aug. 31. It shows Marty Block as 'not voting.' The other document, the one e-mailed by Block's office, does not have a time stamp on it. It shows Block as voting no. Both documents say 'unofficial ballot.' Block's spokesperson David Glanzer says he can't explain the disparity. We'll update this story if we get additional information.
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