Last week, Gov. Newsom, in an “emergency declaration”, is giving 76,000 inmates — including violent and repeat felons — the opportunity to leave prison early in order to reduce the state’s prison population. Of the 76,000 inmates, 63,000 were convicted of violent crimes, including 20,000 serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. In California, a violent crime includes murder, rape, robbery and burglary.
These inmates will be eligible for “good-behavior credits” that could shorten their sentences by one-third. Previously, inmates could reduce their time only by one-fifth.
To put these numbers in context, the state has about 100,000 people behind bars according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). This is down from 123,100 at the end of February 2020, when the Newsom administration, citing COVID-19, released some 20,000 prisoners. Roughly three-fourths of the state’s current prison population are eligible for early release.
For Californians who are scratching their heads wondering why our government wants to let violent criminals out of prison, Dana Simas, the CDCR spokesperson, said in a statement: “The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons.”
But what about safer Californians?
By dangling early release to inmates in exchange for “good behavior” the CDCR seems to have gone NIMBY on Californians. Fellow Right by the Bay blogger Kerry Jackson and author of the PRI book Living in Fear in California, wonders how the state is going to guarantee good behavior outside of prison with already overworked parole officers and probation staffs bracing themselves for an influx of new releases. Worse, the state’s recidivism rate of 50% — one of the highest in the country – offers little comfort to Californians.
While the state is busy letting out prisoners, big city prosecutors are doing their share to carry out the California’s soft-on-crime approach. Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón has weakened sentencing requirements for violent crimes, and reduced sentences on hate, gun, and gang crimes. San Francisco’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin wants to decrease prison populations. All this against the backdrop of rising crime.
Four of California’s major cities have seen significant increases in homicides over the last year: Los Angeles (40%), Oakland (36%), San Francisco (17%) and San Diego (10%) reports the Public Policy Institute of California. Car thefts in these four cities are up 24% while commercial burglaries are up 26% due to the violent protests over the death of George Floyd.
These disturbing stats might explain why some cities are starting to push back. Sacramento has bucked the trend to defund policy departments by proposing to increase funding by $9.4 million to an all-time high of $166 million. Los Angeles city officials, who slashed the police department’s budget by $150 million in 2020, has boosted funding by $36 million in 2021.
Along with Newsom, Boudin and Gascón are facing recalls. Gascón’s recall is being led by victims’ families. Seven Southern California city councils have voted “no confidence” on Gascón’s criminal reform efforts.
As for prison overcrowding, it was Newsom’s newly appointed Attorney General Rob Bonta, who as an assemblyman representing Oakland, led the effort in 2019 to phase out private, for-profit prisons. Private prisons are less expensive to operate and some states have even tied contract payments to lower recidivism rates.
With a budget surplus and stimulus dollars floating around, you would think that California’s progressive politicians would put those dollars to good use keeping residents safe. Instead, Californians will suffer for a problem their elected officials have made worse.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute