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California Assembly passes prison media interview bill

FOI Alert Volume 5 Issue 10 (1999-2000)

The California Assembly on May 11 passed the bill sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists to restore the right of journalists to interview specified California state prisoners face to face. The 47-18 vote sends the bill to the State Senate, but the ultimate test will be in the governor's office.

The bill, AB 2101, carried by Assembly Member Carole Migden, is virtually identical to AB 1440, which cleared the Legislature last year with overwhelming bipartisan support, and SB 434, the first legislative attempt to overturn 1996 Department of Corrections regulations restricting interviews with specified prisoners, which had been allowed for more than 20 years. The department has been able to cite no threat to security or other untoward incident that precipitated the crackdown on interviews.

Gov. Pete Wilson and current Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the earlier bills, citing glorification of prisoners and the dangers of "revictimizing victims."

Numerous journalists, especially those in television -- where film is considered essential in reporting a story -- have put planned news stories on the shelf until the restrictions are reversed.

There is no indication that Gov. Davis has had a spontaneous reversal of opinion on the interview restrictions, so it is anticipated that his office will be consulted at some point in the legislative process in the hope of educating him on the effects of the interview restrictions and, if possible, making minor changes in the bill to respond to his concerns. Supporters of the bill emphasize, however, that this bill is itself a bipartisan compromise fashioned during its first incarnation as SB 434, so it is unclear if common ground can be found to assure a signature.

AB 2101 and its predecessors have received repeated editorial endorsements from almost every major newspaper in the state. Its predecessor bills have created some strange bedfellows, garnering support from legislators of the left and the right and numerous statewide and national organizations across the political spectrum, including the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a major contributor to Governor Davis' election campaign and to organizations of crime victims.

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