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In an unlikely alliance, the state’s formidable prison guard union has teamed up with defense-oriented legal organizations. Their creation: a state sentencing commission plan they’re pushing on the Legislature. A diverse coalition headed by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association released a proposal this week that argues for a sentencing commission with the authority not only to make recommendations to the Legislature on sentencing policy and practices, but to make recommendations that would become law unless both the Senate and Assembly worked against them. “I truly believe that it’s important to give the commission authority unless the Legislature disagrees with it because status quo just has not worked,” said Jeffrey Thoma, Solano County’s public defender and a member of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. For the law enforcement members of the coalition, however, that’s too much power. “We believe that that is a shocking proposed abdication of legislative responsibility for public safety,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Police Officers Association. In the larger debate over the creation of state sentencing commissions, law enforcement has traditionally opposed taking away power from the Legislature, while sentencing commission proponents have said an independent commission would take the political pressure off of lawmakers to appear tough on crime.
‘I truly believe that it’s important to give the commission authority unless the Legislature disagrees with it because status quo just has not worked.’JEFFREY THOMA Solano County public defender

Peter Zeughauser

Members of the coalition, which includes defense attorneys, prosecutors, inmate and victim advocates and others, say they’re working with other lawmakers to get their ideas included in current proposed bills. Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, have already introduced SB 110, which addresses the role of the sentencing commission. They amended the bill two weeks ago. And Assembly member Sally Lieber, D-San Jose, has proposed a similar bill in the Assembly. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s December announcement of his prison reform plan included a 17-member commission to evaluate the state’s sentencing laws and report annually to the Legislature with recommendations. That, along with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January that struck down California’s determinate sentencing law, set off heated debates on the role of sentencing commissions. But for the group of about 40 members, which has been meeting for the last few months, the authority given to the commission was a major sticking point. “The California sentencing structure right now is such a � hodgepodge of statutes,” said Kara Dansky, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “There’s no coherent structure. � It really is going to be an enormous undertaking to create the kind of change many people in California believe is necessary.”

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