For years, Gov. Jerry Brown could hide behind the fig leaf of a federal court order in turning tens of thousands of convicts loose in a program he called “prison realignment.”
Prisons lost almost one-third of their occupants to county jails and streets all around the state. Most of those released or paroled were so-called “minor” criminals; very few rapists, murderers or armed robbers have won early releases.
This satisfied the courts, which all the way up to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld an order to reduce prison populations.
Then came the 2014 Proposition 47, which reclassified many previous felonies as misdemeanors carrying far smaller penalties and no “three-strikes” implications. Felony arrests fell to levels unseen in 50 years. One reason: Thefts below the value of $950 are no longer felonies. Because realignment has caused overcrowding in county jails, most thievery at that level goes unpunished; often perpetrators are not even pursued because of police frustration with the changed rules.
One apparent result – and no, the link has not been proven beyond statistical doubt – is more property crime in many places, while violent crime has remained relatively stable over the last five years. The increase is official; what’s unproven is the direct cause-and-effect link to Proposition 47.
All this is not enough for Brown, who has a new initiative before voters, on the November ballot as Proposition 57. This one allows early paroles for legally defined nonviolent prisoners in exchange for certain achievements and good behavior. The governor spent millions of dollars this spring to qualify his measure, mostly from funds he raised but largely did not spend while winning re-election in 2014.
Brown calls his new measure “straightforward,” saying it will let only judges, and no longer prosecutors, decide which juveniles aged 14 and over to try in adult court. He says it will speed paroles for some nonviolent offenders, while setting up a system of credits allowing inmates earlier releases if they get high school and college degrees while imprisoned, and “take charge of their lives.”
This measure figures to let loose thousands more inmates atop those already released.
What Brown has never said, but a spokesman admitted to a reporter while the initiative petitions were still circulating (at about $5 per valid voter signature), is that some persons convicted of crimes like assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder, elder or child abuse, arson and human trafficking might get speedier paroles.
The disingenuous hype Brown applies to his proposal by saying it would affect only “nonviolent prisoners who can change their criminal thinking …” might be similar to the outright lie told for years by the state prison department, which denied for years allowing serious violent criminals into inmate firefighting camps, where there is limited supervision. Of course, when that oft-repeated claim was disproved, Brown said nothing and disciplined no one.
No one knows how state parole panels will ever be sure that any prisoner has “changed their criminal thinking,” or whether crime rates might increase under this new Brown plan.
A close Brown aide said almost all those covered under the new initiative also could be affected by realignment. “This has a chance of providing a carrot of early release for them,” the aide said. “It won’t work for everyone. But the alternative is a system offering no incentives for people to straighten themselves out.”
Former seminarian Brown couches his measure in moral terms and maintains California “still does not have a durable plan to deal with prison overcrowding.” His initiative could also save many millions in prison costs.
But at what price? Burglaries are up. Car thefts, too. So is shoplifting. Would other crimes rise with a new flow of inmates leaving prisons? No one knows.
For sure, prosecutors say they’re worried, and not only because this proposition would decrease their authority a bit.
In one blog published by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, prosecutors called the measure a “full-fledged assault on public safety,” claiming it would allow parole boards to ignore sentencing enhancements for prior offenses including rape, torture and murder.
The initiative is billed as a humanitarian measure, just like Proposition 47 was when it passed by almost a 3-2 margin. No one knows whether voters this fall will heed some of that measure’s apparent results.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.