Jerry Dewayne Williams, if popular folklore is to be believed, should be coming up for parole soon.
This spring marks the silver anniversary since Williams, better known as the “pizza thief,” received 25-years-to-life for shoplifting a slice of pizza at the Redondo Beach pier. Ever since, he’s been “the patron saint of unfair sentencing.” His story is featured in ongoing efforts by the ACLU to erode tough-on-crime laws.
But Williams won’t be given a chance at parole. A shocking example of California’s unfair criminal justice system? Not exactly. Williams has been out of custody now for over 20 years.
In 1997, two years after his conviction, a judge reduced Williams’ sentence to three years. To his credit, after being released, Williams has avoided a return to prison and urged young people to stay out of trouble. Nevertheless, the case of the pizza thief, and others like it, have been used, however inaccurately, to eviscerate California’s criminal justice system to the detriment of regular, everyday citizens.
From Assembly Bill 109 to Propositions 57 and 47, California has radically altered our state’s approach to crime and punishment.
As someone who joined the Orange County Public Defender’s office in the 1990s, I am well aware of the unfair sentences that some defendants, especially people of color, received for possessing a few ounces of pot or a small amount of cocaine. We’ve now gone to the other extreme by putting dangerous and violent predators back on the streets.
Consider this statistic: Today, there are 48,298 fewer inmates in state prison than in 2006.
On Oct. 31, 2006, 173,357 felons were incarcerated in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities. On Sept. 30, 2019, that figure is just 125,021. That’s a number of felons equivalent to the population of Aliso Viejo or Cypress back on the streets and in our neighborhoods.
The numbers are even more stark when you include people no longer on parole or community supervision. Since 2006, there has been a 41% decrease in the number inmates and parolees. Put another way, that is 128,746 fewer criminals under supervision in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system.
According to the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, 91% of all inmates in state prison have criminal records that include a conviction for a violent or serious crime.
Instead of acknowledging this reality, the Legislature continues to peddle the myth that California prisons are filled with non-violent offenders. In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill by Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco that will put more repeat offenders back on the street.
Supported by the Mass Liberation Project, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Prison Policy Initiative, and the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Senate Bill 136 eliminates a one-year sentence enhancement for repeat offenders who go on to commit more crimes. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, an estimated 10,000 inmates are currently serving under this existing sentencing law.
The dangerous and reckless law faced bipartisan opposition from victims’ rights advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, including the California District Attorneys Association and California State Sheriffs Association.
It was so poorly crafted that it failed to identify the complete list of crimes that would qualify for shorter sentences. However, the Associated Press reports that the law “would ease sentences for those convicted of repeat child abuse and domestic violence offenses.”
“There’s got to be accountability at some point,” Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove, a former Sacramento County sheriff’s captain.
Senate Bill 136 comes on the heels of other reductions in sentencing requirements for dangerous criminals. Last year, state lawmakers approved a law that allows a judge to disregard prior serious felony convictions when considering five-year prison enhancements in sentencing. The year before that, Sacramento gave courts discretion to ignore a sentence enhancement for criminals who use guns.
Californians deserve a sensible justice system that protects victims and holds violent felons accountable. Instead, Sacramento sells us baloney about pizza thieves.
Andrew Do is an Orange County Supervisor who represents Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Westminster, Fountain Valley, and Midway City. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!