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California Assembly passes diluted prison reform bill

Lawmakers stripped out crucial reforms such as a proposal for an independent panel to review tough sentencing guidelines.

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In this May 20 file photo, several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at San Quentin prison in San Quentin, Calif.

Eric Risberg/ AP/ File

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California lawmakers took another step Monday toward easing the vast overcrowding in state prisons, which federal judges have said are too congested to meet inmates' constitutional rights.

But some critics say one of the reforms most needed to fix the problem with the state's correctional system was stripped out of the bill the California State Assembly narrowly passed in a 41-35 vote.

Lawmakers removed a controversial provision to establish a commission to review state sentencing guidelines – some of the most rigid in the country.

"The very term 'sentencing commission' has become pretty toxic in California politics," says Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University. "It's often alleged that they take sentencing power away from the legislature."

The Assembly plan, while it does not go as far as Governor Schwarzenegger would like in cutting prison spending or reducing inmate populations, still makes some significant reforms:

• It reduces the state's 155,000 inmate population by 17,000 over the next year.

• It reduces the number of prisoners under parole supervision following their prison terms.

• It raises the threshold for what crimes are considered felonies.

• It gives inmates the chance to reduce sentences by completing educational or rehabilitation courses.

"While the early releases are important, that still doesn't address the engine of growth that are the sentencing laws," says Ryan King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group that promotes sentencing reform. "There are too many people going into prison and they are staying there too long."

Republicans have hailed the state's tough sentencing guidelines as effective crime-fighting tools that keep citizens safe and violent offenders off the streets.

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