As the state Assembly nears what should be a historic vote on prison reform, it appears that raw political ambition is getting in the way of good policy. Lawmakers working under the leadership of Assembly Speaker Karen Bass have reworked a legislative package that passed in the Senate and have removed a crucial element: a semi-independent commission to make sense of California's unwieldy patchwork of criminal sentencing laws.
The best explanation for this is that Democrats in the Assembly fear being branded as soft on crime. After all, dozens of them voted for a sentencing commission two years ago when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was threatening a veto. But now that Schwarzenegger has gone on record in support, these same lawmakers don't seem to have the stomach to cast that vote again.
While opponents have raised the specter of "early release," a sentencing commission would not release anybody. But it does have the potential to make us all safer by recommending a system that focuses limited resources on the most serious offenders. A good commission would collect information on felony sentences, take stock of sentencing practices and suggest revisions.
Of 11 Assembly Democrats who are already campaigning for higher office, only one voted two years ago against such a commission. That was Ted Lieu of Torrance. One member wasn't in the Legislature in 2007: Joan Buchanan of Alamo.
But eight of the 11 voted on June 6, 2007, for Assembly Bill 160: Anna Caballero of Salinas, Hector De La Torre of South Gate, Ed Hernandez of West Covina, Dave Jones of Sacramento, Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara, Mary Salas of Chula Vista, Lori Saldaña of San Diego and Alberto Torrico of Newark.
One assemblyman who was in the Senate at the time voted for Senate Bill 110: Tom Torlakson of Antioch.
These members did the right thing in 2007, rather than cowering before anticipated ad campaigns or kowtowing to the usual opponents of a sentencing commission. They should do the right thing again.
But this is really about Speaker Bass. Rather than let her members fall prey to political scare tactics or simple fear, she should create the conditions that make it easier for them to cast this tough but important vote.
It's not too late to have Assembly members meet with people from other states that provide real-world, successful examples of how a sentencing commission would work.
Bring in Judge Thomas Ross, a former Superior Court judge and former chairman of the sentencing commission in North Carolina, where a sentencing commission brought longer sentences for violent offenders, tougher community punishments, more consistency and certainty, and an end to prison crowding.
Or draw on local resources, such as Judge Roger K. Warren, a 20-year veteran of Sacramento County trial courts who has been project director for the National Sentencing Reform Project.
Creating a sentencing commission is doable and, the experience of other states shows, quite successful. Bass shouldn't let this opportunity slip away.