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Assembly passes drug sentencing reform bill

The Assembly approved a bill Wednesday that would reform California’s sentencing laws for simple drug possession, a move supporters say would reduce costly jail populations, get more people into rehab and let authorities focus on more serious crimes.

SB 649 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would give county prosecutors flexibility to charge low-level, nonviolent drug crimes either as misdemeanors or felonies – making them what’s known as “wobblers.” It also would give judges discretion to deem a non-violent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony after consideration of the offense and the defendant’s record.

This wouldn’t apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. SB 649 now returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading for Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Mark Leno“We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite,” Leno said in a news release Wednesday.

“We give non-violent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they’re incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education,” he said. “SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reduced penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million per year. Leno notes that 13 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor, but don’t have higher drug-crime rates.

Though introduced earlier, the bill moves California in the same direction as the new federal policy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month in San Francisco: Federal prosecutors will stop seeking longer mandatory sentences for many nonviolent drug offenders, part of a broad new effort to focus on violent crimes and national security while reducing the nation’s gigantic prison population.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli – senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California, which is among the bill’s sponsors – said Wednesday that SB 649 “is just the kind of common sense solution to California’s incarceration crisis that voters have been demanding, and the legislature deserves credit for choosing to be smart on crime.”

“Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release – three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, another sponsor of the bill. “I was heartened to see some Assembly Republicans standing in favor, or at least not opposed, to this common sense solution.”

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Senators will urge pension funds to shun Russia

In a move that could have a lot more impact than a vodka boycott, state Senate Democrats intend to introduce a resolution urging California’s massive public pension funds not to invest future resources in Russia.

Mark Leno“The anti-gay laws recently passed in Russia are an unconscionable affront to LGBT people across the world, not just those who live in that country,” state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said in a news release. “Californians cannot silently sit back and tacitly condone these practices by continuing to invest in and support Russian enterprises. CalPERS and CalSTRS are well placed to use their economic clout to make a strong statement that it’s unacceptable to persecute and discriminate against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Leno – joined by sate Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento; Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach; and bill sponsor Equality California – will offer a resolution – urging the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System to cease making direct future investments in Russia, and to encourage companies in which employee retirement funds are invested and that are doing business in Russia not to enable human rights violations.

It also will call on the International Olympic Committee to seek a written guarantee from the Russian government that athletes and other visitors to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will not be prosecuted under the anti-gay laws; urges NBC Universal to discuss the negative impact of these laws on-air during its broadcast of the games; and calls upon the president, Congress, and the State Department to increase efforts to encourage the decriminalization of homosexuality in countries around the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted a new law June 30 that threatens arrest, detainment and imprisonment for up to 15 days for individuals or groups found to be publicly supportive of LGBT equality. Punishable offenses could include public acknowledgment of one’s orientation, displays of affection between same-sex partners, statements in support of LGBT rights, and the use of symbols such as rainbows that are attributed to the LGBT community. Hate crimes and public persecution of gays have increased in the months following the enactment of these extreme measures.

“What’s happening in Russia is an outrageous violation of basic human rights, and history has taught us time and time again what can happen when we remain silent in the face of such persecution,” Steinberg said in the news release. “It’s imperative that we stand strong with our LGBT brothers and sisters by clearly condemning these homophobic laws and policies. Through the world stage of next year’s Winter Olympics and through adherence to socially responsible investment practices, we can help put an end to this aggressive discrimination.

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State Senate OKs open-government amendment

The state Senate passed an amendment Wednesday that would enshrine the California Public Records Act in the state constitution while making local governments foot their own bills, winning praise from the open-government advocates who were pillorying the same lawmakers just a few weeks ago.

SCA 3 by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and state Sen. Mark Leno specifies that all local government agencies are required to comply with the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act, and removes the mandate that the state reimburse local entities for the costs of following these laws. It will be heard next in Assembly policy committees, and if it’s approved by the required two-thirds vote of the Legislature, it would appear on the June 2014 ballot.

“The Senate vote today moves us one step closer to strengthening the state’s most critical transparency laws by putting them in the California Constitution,” Leno, D-San Francisco, said in a news release. “This constitutional amendment permanently protects the right of Californians to inspect public records and attend public meetings. It also clarifies the role of local governments to make their activities open and accessible without expectation of reimbursement from the state.”

Steinberg said the amendment doesn’t preclude strengthening these laws in the future. “Rather, it makes crystal clear that local agencies must comply with those laws and pay the costs to do so, which is important both for our democratic process and the protection of state taxpayers.”

California Newspaper Publishers Association general counsel Jim Ewert said his organization applauds Leno and Steinberg for this effort “which, if approved by voters, will strengthen and protect the public’s fundamental right to access government agency meetings and records in order to meaningfully participate in the decision making process. SCA 3 will ultimately and emphatically resolve the reimbursable mandate issue that has threatened the public’s right to know about local government activities for over 20 years.”

First Amendment Coalition executive director Peter Scheer agreed the amendment “removes any lingering doubt about local governments’ obligation to comply fully with the Public Records Act and Brown Act” and “hardwires the public’s ‘right to know’ to the state constitution.”

These and other organizations were calling for Steinberg’s and Leno’s heads a few weeks ago after they advanced a budget trailer bill that would’ve removed the state’s reimbursements for compliance with the Brown Act and CPRA and let local agencies choose whether or not to comply with key provisions of those laws.

When a public outcry ensued, Leno and Steinberg proposed this amendment but still wanted to withdraw the state reimbursements for the year until voters could approve it. Further pressure compelled the lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to agree to continue the reimbursements for the next fiscal year.

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Politicians react to same-sex marriage rulings

EVERYBODY has something to say about today’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage. Here’s the latest from your Bay Area elected officials.

From U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.:

“As author of the bill to repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, I am thrilled by today’s Supreme Court decision.

“Today’s ruling clearly establishes that the 14 senators who opposed DOMA in 1996 were correct. It also states that one class of legally married individuals cannot be denied rights under federal law accorded to all other married couples. Doing so denies ‘equal protection’ under the Constitution. This is an important and significant decision.

“Because of inequities in the administration of more than 1,100 federal laws affected by DOMA, it is still necessary to introduce legislation to repeal DOMA and strike this law once and for all. I will introduce that legislation today with 39 cosponsors in the Senate.

“As a Californian, I am thrilled by the Supreme Court’s decision on Proposition 8. The court’s ruling on technical grounds leaves in place former Chief Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that Prop 8 is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.

“I believe this decision means marriage equality will finally be restored in California.”

From U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.:

“Today my spirits are soaring because the Supreme Court reaffirmed the promise of America by rejecting two blatantly unconstitutional measures that discriminated against millions of our families.
“I was proud to have voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, and it is so heartening to see that the federal government will now treat all marriages equally.

“Because of the Court’s ruling on Proposition 8, millions of Californians will be able to marry the person they love – with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with it.”

From House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco:

“Today, the Supreme Court bent the arc of history once again toward justice. The court placed itself on the right side of history by discarding Section 3 of the defenseless Defense of Marriage Act and by allowing marriage equality for all families in California. The highest court in the land reaffirmed the promise inscribed into its walls: ‘equal justice under law.’

“Soon, the federal government will no longer discriminate against any family legally married in the United States. California will join 12 other states and the District of Columbia in recognizing the fundamental rights of all families. Our country will move one step closer to securing equal protection for all of our citizens.

“Nearly 44 years to the day after the Stonewall Riots turned the nation’s attention to discrimination against LGBT Americans, the fight for equal rights took a giant step forward. Yet even with today’s victory at the Supreme Court, the struggle for marriage equality is not over. Whether in the courts or in state legislatures, we will not rest until men and women in every state are granted equal rights. We will keep working to ensure that justice is done for every American, no matter who they love.”

Tons more, after the jump…
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Another fight about who pays for public disclosure

On the heels of last week’s California Public Records Act dustup, we’ve seen another sign that local governments don’t want to be told how, or foot the bills, to keep the public informed.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee today voted 7-0 to pass AB 1149 by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, which would require all local government agencies to notify their workers and constituents if their electronic data has been hacked, as the state and the private sector already are required to do.

But the bill’s opponents include the Association of California Healthcare Districts, California Association of Joint Powers Authorities, California Special Districts Association, California State Association of Counties, the League of California Cities and the Urban Counties Caucus.

“AB 1149 infringes on local governments that have already adopted their own policies related to information breaches, and we are concerned about the potential cost implications for some cities of setting up the breach notifications outlined in the bill,” Natasha Karl, the League of California Cities’ legislative representative, said via e-mail today.

In other words, they don’t want to be told how – or be forced – to do it, or to pay for it. Campos contends that without such a law, there’s a patchwork of local policies – or no local policies at all – on disclosing such information leaks.

Nora Campos“People have the right to know if their personal information has been stolen so they can take appropriate steps to prevent further theft,” she said. “It’s outrageous that local governments are standing in the way of this. They say it would be too costly. But this is a public duty.”

Campos said her account was once hacked when she served on the San Jose City Council, and she was grateful for the alert she received so that she could contact her bank and credit card companies to warn them of any potential identity theft.

Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she understood local governments’ misgivings over potential costs, “but this just makes so much sense because local government does use this kind of information… A breach is a breach. It’s very important to have that protection.”

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, just last week were contending that few if any local governments would hesitate to foot their own bills for compliance with the California Public Records Act. Such entities would be too scared of the public’s wrath to ignore the law, they insisted as they pushed Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal that the state stop funding the law and major sections be reduced to recommended best practices if locals don’t want to pay for them.

Amid a public outcry, the lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown reversed course. The state will keep reimbursing local governments for compliance with the Public Records Act at least until voters can decide next year whether to enshrine the PRA in the state constitution – and in doing so require the locals to foot the bills themselves.

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Mark Leno responds to Public Records Act hubbub

The story that Tom Peele and I wrote late Friday afternoon about a budget trailer bill essentially letting local governments opt out of their obligations under the Public Records Act – which many say guts the law – drew a lot of righteous outrage over the weekend.

The general policy initially had been suggested by Gov. Jerry Brown, in his budget proposals. State Sen. Mark Leno, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee that authored the bill in question, didn’t get back to me Friday in time for the story’s deadline, but did return my call and leave me a message on Saturday afternoon. (I was off Monday, so I only just heard it this morning.) Here’s what Leno, D-San Francisco, said:

Mark Leno“The policy question before the Legislature was not in support or opposition to the Public Records Act – that is intact. Voters have supported the public records act, that has not changed. The policy question was is it a responsibility of the general fund – and the LAO has pegged the cost at tens of millions of dollars annually – to pay for local government to do what they should and the voters want them to do.

“We do not believe that there will be much change at all. Local government is not going to stop doing this, and if they do, they put themselves, local electeds will put themselves on record as a result of this bill to say ‘We won’t do this anymore.’ So if reporters or the public or anybody else has a problem with that, it’s with their local elected officials.

“Everyone supports the Public Records Act, it’s a question of is it a responsibility of the general fund. And then of course there’s the whole conversation of how the state has been abused by these mandates, locals billing us outrageous amounts for minimal time and expense – that’s a whole other question.”