SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California state senators who are upset with the prison system’s inspector general are proposing to do away with the watchdog office, splitting its duties in a way they say will improve investigators’ efficiency and independence.

The Office of Inspector General is perhaps best known in recent years for its scathing reports on parole agents’ improper supervision of convicted rapist Phillip Garrido, who pleaded guilty last week to holding Jaycee Dugard captive in a backyard compound for 18 years, and their failure to send molester John Albert Gardner III back to prison before he could murder two San Diego County teenagers.

It has exposed poor practices in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, investigated wrongdoing by employees, and serves as one of the few checks on a federal court-appointed receiver who controls inmate medical care.

Critics in the Senate say it has also been slow to react and has grown too cozy with the department it oversees.

“You had some pretty bad things going on in CDCR and the inspector general just missed them,” said Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. “Maybe the inspector general’s office is just overwhelmed.”

Lieu is proposing legislation, SB777, which would transfer prison audits to the Bureau of State Audits. A second bill by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, would eliminate the inspector general position and create a new Office of Independent Correctional Oversight that would pick up many of the remaining functions. It would have a director instead of an inspector general, though it would still report to the governor and lawmakers.

Both bills have their first hearing on Tuesday in the Senate Public Safety Committee.

They enjoy the support of the Senate’s leader, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. He said in a statement that the inspector general’s office “failed in its duty” to investigate employee malfeasance and needs to focus on its core duties of “rooting out waste, corruption and misconduct.”

Laura Hill, a spokeswoman for the office, said she couldn’t comment on the pending legislation.

The office now has an acting inspector general, after previous Inspector David Shaw abruptly resigned in December, two years into his six-year term, after criticism from the Senate.

Hancock’s bill, SB490, would strip the inspector general and his staff of their status as peace officers, but grant them the power to make arrests and serve warrants.

A Senate report released in November questioned why the employees carry guns, take state cars home at night and qualify for early peace officer retirement benefits, even though they rarely exercise police powers. None of the office’s investigators had fired a gun or made an arrest in at least five years, the Senate report said.

“Most of the work they do is the work of auditors and lawyers. They have desk jobs,” Hancock said.

The office was created in 1994 and has been strengthened and assigned new duties over the years. It survived former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempt in 2004 to merge the office into the department it oversees, and was instead given new authority and a bigger budget.

Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, said it is important for lawmakers to protect the office’s duties and independence. His nonprofit law firm has filed many of the lawsuits alleging poor conditions in California prisons.

“It is kind of the only state agency that has been able to get to the bottom of some very serious issues that are not only wrong and illegal, but they’ve highlighted a lot of areas where the department has wasted a lot of money,” Specter said.

Lawmakers are also considering these other bills before an upcoming deadline to pass legislation out of its house of origin:

— Juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole could get a second chance under a bill before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. SB9, by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would let courts review the life sentences after 10 years. Judges could reduce them to 25 years-to-life under the bill, which victims’ rights groups oppose. About 275 California inmates are serving life terms for crimes committed before they were 18.

— The state would increase its regulation of local governments’ red-light cameras under a bill by Sen. Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto. SB29 would bar local governments from using the cameras to raise money. It also would require local governments to better warn motorists that the cameras are in use and set up policies for challenging tickets and properly issuing citations. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hear the bill Monday.

— California could increase the environmental and safety regulations faced by the Dungeness crab fishing industry in its annual race to get as many catchable-size crabs as possible after the season opens in November. SB369, by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would extend a sunset date for existing state rules. She hopes California joins other West Coast states in limiting the number of crab pots in its coastal waters. The bill is awaiting action in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.

— More than a dozen bills on changing public employee pensions are scheduled for hearings. They include a package of bills by Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest, that would limit pension benefits for local elected officials, eliminate negotiating for pension benefits in collective bargaining, limit retroactive benefit increases and require most new employees to work until at least age 55 before they retire. Those bills are scheduled Monday before the Senate Public Employment and Retirement Committee. Another measure to bar pensions from the terms of collective bargaining, AB961 by Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, is set for consideration Wednesday in the Assembly Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security Committee.

— Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would add school districts to the other local governments that could put a wide range of local taxes on the ballot under his SB653. The bill would allow school boards, cities and counties to ask local voters for new taxes on personal income, sales, vehicle licenses, oil drilling, tobacco, alcoholic beverages, sweetened drinks or medical marijuana. It’s scheduled Wednesday in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee.

— It would be illegal for teenagers under age 18 to use tanning beds under a bill by Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. The current age limit is 14, and teens ages 15-17 can tan with their parents’ permission. Lieu’s bill, SB746, is up for consideration Monday by the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee.

— Some consumers buying cell phones pay more in taxes than for the phones themselves. That’s because companies discount phone prices if buyers sign up for service contracts, but still calculate tax from the phones’ original price. Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach, has introduced a bill to tax just the sale price of the phones. AB279 is scheduled for consideration Monday in the Revenue and Taxation Committee.

— School districts across the state would have to install composting and recycling bins if AB900 passes. They are already encouraged to offer paper recycling programs. The bill by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, will go before the Assembly Natural Resources Committee Monday.

— Cities would have authority over marijuana dispensaries under AB1300, by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Sherman Oaks. His office says there are problems with inconsistent regulation, illegal sales and violent crimes at the dispensaries. Each city has a different approach, prompting industry advocates to sue, arguing that only the state has power over marijuana transactions. This bill would let cities determine dispensary locations, related crime prevention measures, licensing and taxation. It will be heard Tuesday in the Assembly Health Committee.

— Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, is worried that the state court system’s Judicial Council is siphoning funds from trial courts to pay for what some have criticized as a wasteful computer project that could cost more than $2 billion. Calderon’s AB1208 would require trial courts to give written consent before their money could be used for the computer system. The bill goes before the Assembly Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

— Sex offenders who currently are required to publicly register their addresses for life could get a break under AB625 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. His bill would create three tiers of registration: 10 years, 20 years and life. Nonviolent offenders who are deemed to be low risk and have gone 10 years with no sex or violent offenses and no more than one felony would only have to register for 10 years, while those with a moderate risk of reoffending, who were convicted of a violent sex offense or molestation, would be in the second tier. Offenders with a record of sexual violence or mental disorders and multiple felonies would remain registered for life. The bill will be heard Tuesday in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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