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“The formula for releasing prisoners and cutting cops is not a smart one.” Attorney General Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2009.
I agree, and I trust that now-Governor Brown will stand behinds those words. For without a doubt, the principle responsibility of government is to protect its citizens from those who would do us harm.
Yet, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that California must somehow reduce its prison population by approximately 33,000 inmates, and the first question becomes: Which ones?
Felons convicted of murder, manslaughter, violent or serious crimes against the person total 63,500. There are 19,000 inmates that are in prison for kidnapping and/or sex-related crimes. Property and theft related offenses account for 30,000 inmates. For drug related crimes, of the 23,000 serving time, 15,000 have been convicted of manufacturing or dealing drugs. Other offenses include arson, felons found in possession of firearms and driving the under influence.
Almost 60 percent of all inmates were on parole or probation at the time they committed their most recent felony. Tens of thousands of inmates currently serving time for other (perhaps non-violent) offenses have violent criminal histories. These numbers belie common assumptions that our prisons are full of petty thieves and drug addicts.
More than 70 percent of felons will commit another crime within three years of their release. On average, fourteen percent of re-offenders will commit 13 felonies before being re-apprehended, and 20 percent of those felonies will be violent.
Let’s take a closer look at just a handful of these “non-violent” offenders.
- In 2003, Rogelio Carlos-Zaragoza and Leonel Carlos-Zaragoza were arrested on charges of kidnapping, rape and gang rape. In a plea bargain the charges were reduced to one misdemeanor count of soliciting a prostitute, the other charges were dropped, and they were sentenced to two years of informal probation. In 2009, the men were again arrested for kidnapping with intent to commit rape; however, the prior case could not be used against them as evidence.
- In July, 2009, a Kerman couple in their 60’s was killed in a home invasion robbery in Fresno County by Jose Alfredo Reyes and three others. The 19-year-old man was in custody for vehicle theft and had been released from the Fresno County jail three days before the killing because of overcrowding.
- Charlie Samuel was classified as a “non-violent” offender due to his most recent conviction for petty theft with a prior. Having been given a pass to temporarily leave a drug rehabilitation center, within hours he abducted, robbed and brutally murdered 17-year-old Lily Burk.
- Anthony Sowell served 15 years in prison for choking and raping a 21-year-old woman, was a registered sex offender who conscientiously checked in with the sheriff’s office. He was not on parole or probation after his release from prison, so agents had no authority to check his home. In 2009, he was accused of rape and felonious assault. When officers went to his home with an arrest warrant, they found the bodies of six other women in various states of decomposition.
Sadly, there have been other similar accounts in the news. I refuse to support efforts that promote early release of convicted felons or to weaken state laws regarding penalties for serious or violent crimes.
There is an obvious alternative to releasing convicted felons: adding to our housing capacity. We have known for years about overcrowding and have pursued avenues to relieve overcrowding while keeping the public safe. In 2007, the Legislature approved Assembly Bill 900, which provided $7.4 billion in lease revenue bonds for construction to provide 50,000 new jail and prison beds. Four years later, it is reported that eleven jail projects have been approved, but only two have broken ground and none have been finished. What are we waiting for?
Our previous Governor let all Californians down when he and his Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation purposefully stalled construction of these projects. They had ample financing and direct legislative authority, yet failed to act.
Now is a time for action, not calls for more taxes or platitudes for more programs. We have a new administration and two years to demonstrate progress in meeting the high court’s directive. Let’s not wait to find out what the alternatives might look like.