Legislature needs to fix crime definitions
There isn’t a woman alive who was ever raped while either intoxicated or unconscious who doesn’t consider the entire experience violent.
But that’s not how these crimes are defined legally in California. The same for human trafficking of a child, abducting a minor for prostitution, drive-by shootings at inhabited homes or cars, felony domestic violence, solicitation to commit murder, among others.
The failure to designate these heinous offenses as violent is an aberration that can be fixed by the state Legislature, one that should have been accomplished last year, after passage of the 2016 Proposition 57 began allowing early paroles of non-violent criminals in exchange for certain achievements and good behavior in custody.
No sociologist or psychologist has ever claimed that earning a college degree (one achievement that can help create eligibility for early prison releases) reduces the likelihood a parolee will repeat his or her prior crime.
Official state statistics now do not link Proposition 57’s early paroles with crime increases. But the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys early this year claimed violent crime in some cities was up by 50 percent since 2013, about the time Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment program took hold. Under that plan, designed to comply with federal court orders to ease crowded conditions inside state prisons, many inmates have been shifted to county jails, while lesser offenders sometimes serve little or no jail time.
Combining that with the early releases of Proposition 57 is a sure-fire ticket to increased crime, says the prosecutors’ group.
One way to decrease the exodus of felons from prison would be to change some definitions, something a few lawmakers tried to accomplish last year.
But a series of bills aiming to expand the list of crimes defined as violent died in legislative financial committees. Too expensive, was the verdict. That was the reason given when the Assembly Appropriations Committee just about one year ago killed a bipartisan measure aiming to classify all rapes and all human trafficking as violent.
Keeping in custody the approximately 120 prisoners who could then have been affected by that proposed change would have cost $1 million a year. If just one of the men involved were prevented from repeating such a crime, those dollars would likely have been among the best-spent in the state budget.
No one has tracked how defeat of the measure actually affected crime in the streets. But Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims told one reporter the new parole laws combine with realignment to erode public faith in the justice system.
She cited reports of arrestees saying immediately after their capture that Proposition 57 and the 2014 Proposition 47 (which lowered many felonies to the misdemeanor level) would cut their prison time by half or more. Soon after, Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper blamed lenient new laws for the early 2017 slaying of Police Officer Keith Boyer, shot by a recently paroled felon involved in a car accident. “We need to wake up,” said Piper, whose claim was never proved. “Enough is enough. This is a senseless, senseless tragedy that did not need to be.”
Meanwhile, in the final proposed state budget of his long career, Brown wants to spend $50 million more in the next year (on top of more than $100 million spent last year) on programs to help former inmates stay out of jail. Currently, 46 percent of state inmates released in the latest year for which data is available were convicted of new crimes less than three years after release.
Official numbers are not yet in on the effects of Proposition 57 on violent crime, but there is no doubt property crimes in big cities rose sharply in the two years after Proposition 47 passed.
Efforts are underway again in the Legislature to change at least some crime designations to violent. This time, they must succeed, or it’s a good bet that lives will be lost as public safety is diminished.
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Email Thomas Elias firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net