California was slow in responding to a federal mandate to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons. But it has reached its stride through several initiatives. These include the adoption of legislation authorizing the release of low-risk inmates, voter approval of Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors, and the statewide prison realignment program, which has shifted thousands of prisoners to county jails.
On the Nov. 8 ballot, the governor is proposing another early-release plan — but this time he has gone too far. Proposition 57, if approved, would allow felons sentenced for less-violent crimes to earn early parole by receiving credit for education and good behavior opportunities. It also would allow judges, rather than prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults.
Creating a credit system that encourages inmates to take advantage of evidence-based rehabilitation programs is a good thing. California’s prisons are focused too much on correction and not rehabilitation. But where Proposition 57 goes astray is in the details — such as its failure to make clear what nonviolent felonies qualify for the program. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors contend that the wording is fuzzy enough that the early-release program would apply to a broad range of felons including those convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence and sex trafficking of minors. They contend it also would apply to rape of an unconscious person, one of the charges involved in the hotly debated case against Stanford swimmer Brock Turner. Moreover, the proposition would give unprecedented authority to parole boards to consider releasing felons after completion of only the term of their primary offense. Any enhancements added on to their sentences — either by judges or voter-approved mandates — such as the use of a deadly weapon or participation in gang activity would be “considerations” but could be disregarded.
The net effect, law enforcement officials contend, is that more felons will end up back on the streets, putting communities at risk. “The impacts are incalculable,” said Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch in a meeting with The Press Democrat Editorial Board. “It’s a frightening situation.”
It also comes at a time when California is already experiencing a bump in crime. According to data released earlier this year by the FBI, of the 10 U.S. cities that experienced the largest increases in violent crime for the first half of 2015, five were in California, including San Francisco (No. 8), Los Angeles (No. 3) and Sacramento (No. 1). Although the evidence of a direct connection is weak, law enforcement officials contend there’s a link between this bump in crime and the passage of Proposition 47 and realignment. Nonetheless, it’s clear this is no time to risk putting more felons back on the street, given the high rates of recidivism that already exist.
This is why 55 out of 58 district attorneys in the state, along with the California Peace Officers’ Association, the California Police Chiefs’ Association and local officials including Sheriff Steve Freitas are opposed.
Moreover, California has already reduced its prison population by some 50,000 inmates since 2009, nearing its target goal. It’s not clear whether such a drastic change in the state’s sentencing laws is needed, let alone desired. The Press Democrat recommends a no vote on Proposition 57.