Prop. 57 pushes the criminal justice pendulum too far in favor of dangerous felons. Inaptly described as a “public safety” measure, Prop. 57 aims to save taxpayers money by granting early parole for dangerous felons. However, the voters are being misled by the campaign in favor of Prop. 57. Proponents say it only applies to prisoners who committed nonviolent crimes, but there is an eight-page list of violent crimes that fall outside of a legal, technical definition of “violent.” Some of these so-called nonviolent felonies include rape, domestic violence, arson, human trafficking, vehicular manslaughter, gang crime, and assault with a firearm. Furthermore, Prop. 57 allows prison bureaucrats the constitutional power to grant sentence reductions for all felons — including those who committed violent felonies — without any input from voters, legislators, or judges.
In 2007 California’s prison population ballooned to over 170,000 inmates. Since then the Legislature adopted Prison Realignment, the voters approved Prop. 36 and Prop. 47, and the prison system has enacted its own policies. Due to those changes, the inmate population is down to below 130,000. After this massive, unprecedented release of prison inmates back into our communities, crime has started to go back up. Now is not the time for a misguided, far-reaching change in the law that will allow dangerous criminals to get released early from prison.
Proposition 57 will make tens of thousands of dangerous inmates eligible for significantly earlier release. Proponents claim that only “rehabilitated” criminals will receive early release. In principle, the concept of rehabilitated felons returning to our neighborhoods sounds great. However, Prop. 57 fails to mention how prisons — with their already well-established lousy record of rehabilitation — will accomplish this and, more importantly, how the prison system will pay for new rehabilitation programs.
We have heard this promise before — rehabilitation leads to less crime. Back in 2011 the California Legislature passed Prison Realignment which shifted the incarceration burden from the state to the local level for many lower-level felonies. Along with this shift, we were promised that tax dollars would be available to rehabilitate inmates with “evidence-based” programs, and crime would go down. However, crime has increased. Prop. 57 promises rehabilitation of extremely dangerous criminals. We should ensure that we can successfully rehabilitate low-level felons before we grant early release of dangerous felons.
Furthermore, the rights of victims that were guaranteed over the past 40 years in a host of public safety initiatives will be cast aside in Prop. 57 in order to give prisons the power to release dangerous felons early without listening to the voices of victims, victims’ families, prosecutors, law enforcement, and sentencing judges.
We all want to reduce our prison population, but not at the expense of public safety. California spending on prisons has plateaued at $10 billion, and spending on education now exceeds $80 billion. As an alternative to releasing hardened, dangerous criminals early, let’s allow our investment in our children and young adults to work to keep people out of prison in the first place.
Stephen P. Foley is president of the Santa Barbara Deputy District Attorney’s Association.