Proposition 57 proposes earlier release for some non-violent prisoners

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For the fourth time in five years, California voters are being asked to weigh in on the earlier release of certain prisoners, in this case, those convicted of “non-violent crimes.”

Proposition 57, titled “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016,” would consider certain state-prison inmates convicted of non-violent felony offenses for release earlier than through previous release guidelines.

Under the measure, the state prison system and parole boards could award more sentencing credits to inmates for good behavior, and approved rehabilitative and educational achievements.

Also under the measure, juveniles would be required, in most cases (based on severity of crimes committed), to have a hearing in juvenile court before they could be transferred to adult court and adult prison. Those decisions as to whether to try juveniles as adults would be made by judges rather than prosecutors, as under the current system.

Prop 57, according to proponents, is designed to achieve two goals: alleviate California prison overcrowding (California is currently under U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce prison overcrowding for violation of the Eighth Amendment); and it is intended to incentivize prisoners to pursue rehabilitative behavior while in prison in order to receive sentencing credits that could shorten prison time.

Jerry Brown, who in his first terms as governor, supported mandatory minimum sentencing, is now a proponent of Prop 57. He admits that the system he first supported is not working and that the current system is “utterly complex.” Said Brown, “The system we have now is far more draconian than the one I signed in 1976. District attorneys have a menu of possible charges to choose from that’s the size of a phone book. Their discretion is unfettered and unreviewable. If we shift power back to our parole boards, we’ll have a professional group of people privately evaluating when to release our prisoners. Right now, we have politicians in Sacramento competing with each other to be the toughest of all.”

Under the measure, earlier release would work in these ways: only those convicted of non-violent felony crimes who have served “full sentences for their primary offense and have passed screening for public security” would be eligible for parole (according to Associated Press estimates that would make 7,000 current prisoners eligible). Prisoners must apply for earlier release and have their cases considered with no guarantee they would be released early.

It should be noted that “enhancements” that contributed to longer initial sentencing would be excluded (Sec. 32 a 1 A); California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could award sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior or education achievements; CDCR must adopt regulations to implement new parole and sentence credit provisions, and certify that they “enhance public safety”; and juvenile court judges shall make determinations, upon “prosecutor motion,” as to whether juveniles ages 14 and older should be prosecuted and sentenced as adults for “specific offenses.”

The measure is leading in polls, has a major financial advantage going into the election and is supported by a broad range of elected officials, political parties, governmental and non-governmental organizations. These include Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom; former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; the California Democratic, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties; California State Law Enforcement Association; Chief Probation Officers of California; Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; California Federation of Teachers; and California Labor Federation.

The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates passage would save taxpayers “tens of missions of dollars annually” primarily due to reductions in the state prison population. Net increases in county costs (due to parole supervision) are likely a “few million dollars annually.”

Opponents, including elected officials, organizations, district attorneys, and county sheriffs and police chiefs, argue that “non-violent felony crimes” are not specifically defined in Prop 57 wording or anywhere else in current California law.

Instead, opponents note that violent felonies are defined in a list of 23 offenses contained in California Penal Code  section 667.5 that has been in effect since 1977. They also note passage of Prop 8 in 1982 that specified “serious felonies” with a list longer than that of CPC § 667.5.

Opponents argue that certain “serious felonies,” although not defined as “violent felonies” under the Penal Code, have violence as a component, and could arguably be excluded under Prop 57’s definition of “non-violent” felonies. For example, battery with personal infliction of serious bodily injury; rape where the victim is legally incapable of giving consent; arson of a structure or forest land; grand theft with a firearm; and exploding a destructive device or explosive with intent to injure. Opponents state, “Presumably, any felony not included in the definition of ‘violent felony’ would be a ‘non-violent felony’ for purposes of the initiative,” and that many who committed crimes with violent components could be eligible for earlier parole under this measure.

Brown rebuts that claim by noting that parole boards would use discretion when reviewing cases and not release violent criminals.

Opponents include two elected Democrats, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-46), state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-5, Central Valley, Stockton and Modesto), and 32 elected Republicans, including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, state Sen. Andy Vidak (R-14), and 29 U.S. representatives including Brian Jones (R-71), and 50 county district attorneys, including Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, and numerous county sheriffs and police chiefs.

Financial support ($8.3 million) for Prop 57 comes primarily from Brown’s Ballot Measure Committee, the California Democratic Party and Reed Hastings, CEO and co-founder of Netflix.

Opposition support ($250,000) comes from the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, Association of Deputy District Attorneys and David Horowitz.

For more information, visit http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/en/propositions/57/arguments-rebuttals.htm.

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