With violent crime increasing in California, it seems reasonable to grant early release to inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses to make room in the prison system for truly dangerous felons. Most of us would be happy to trade an accountant guilty of bilking his employer for a serial rapist. One is a far greater threat to society than the other.
But California’s political class can’t even get this simple calculation right.
Voters will find Proposition 57 on their ballots this fall and many will support it as they’ve been led to believe that it is simply a vehicle, according to the ballot language, for “increasing parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes.” Supporters include Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris. The Democratic machine, the ruling party in what is essentially a one-party state, is also behind the measure.
Their belief is that Prop 57 would be an effective program for relieving population stress in California’s prisons and is a preferred alternative to federal court-ordered prisoner releases, which could happen in the near future as the state’s prison population is now within 3 percent of a federal-court cap while violent crimes are escalating across California.
Opponents tend to be criminal prosecutors, law enforcement officers and law enforcement officer associations. Surely their opinions should carry more weight than politicians, since they witness daily the wounds that crime leaves on a society. Unlike much of our political class, they have not insulated themselves from the ugliness.
It’s likely there would be little opposition to the initiative if it were to actually achieve what its proponents say it will. But instead of allowing for the release of truly nonviolent inmates only, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 would permit release of inmates who have been convicted of brutal acts.
In fact, says the California District Attorneys Association, the term “nonviolent felony offense” is not even defined in the initiative nor elsewhere in state law. At the same time, the association says that inmates who have been convicted of “crimes designated by the Legislature and the voters as ‘serious’ offenses’ will be eligible for early release.” Mark Zahner, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, calls it a “reckless experiment.”
As written, the measure expressly blocks early release of those convicted of 23 specific violent crimes. Its weakness – a gaping loophole, in reality – is that there is a long list of violent crimes that aren’t a part of that 23. Felons convicted of arson causing great bodily harm, a drive-by shooting, hostage taking, assault with a deadly weapon, attempting to bomb a school or hospital, and several other violent offenses will be eligible for early release, opponents say. A catalog of sexual-assault related crimes, gang-related crimes and crimes against children qualify as “nonviolent” offenses under the early-release program, as well.
After a few years of falling crime rates, felonies against persons are on the rise in California, according to data from theattorney general’s office. Overall violent crime increased 8.4 percent last year over 2014. Homicides jumped nearly 10 percent, from 1,697 to 1,861. Robberies increased from 48,650 to 52,785, an 8.5 percent rise. Incidents of aggravated assault also took off, growing from 91,681 to 99,149.
While the surges in those crimes are certainly worrisome, escalation of another violent crime is truly alarming. Cases of rape soared in 2015 over 2014, sharply climbing from 9,397 to 12,793, an increase of more than 36 percent.
It is in this environment that Brown and others want to release violent offenders. Though maybe well-intentioned, the initiative is a threat to public safety. It was sloppily written, said Zahner. And it appears to have been composed under the cover of darkness, without input from those with experience in the streets and courtrooms who could have alerted its authors to the unintended consequences it will create.
Brown’s blind support of Prop 57 drove him to recently leave a nasty voicemail on Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims’ phone, lecturing her about her public opposition to the initiative and telling her that her “scare tactics” are “unbecoming of a public official.” But critics say Brown doesn’t even understand his own initiative and revealed his ignorance in the voicemail.
Maybe voters will turn down Prop 57, forcing supporters to rewrite it. If so, they owe it to Californians to invite contributions from those who know what’s needed to make it a sound policy. The governor might find that it’s written so clearly that even he can understand it.