This article will summarize recent criminal justice reforms, and their impact on our local criminal justice system:
The recent wave of criminal justice reforms started in March of 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order requiring the state of California to reduce prison populations from approximately 180 percent of design capacity to 137.5 percent of capacity within a two-year period. The state developed a plan to come into compliance by shifting additional responsibility to counties.
The state implemented its plan by way of a series of bills that are commonly referred to as the “Public Safety Realignment initiative,” “Realignment,” or AB109, which was the primary piece of legislation.
The following is a summary of some of the changes implemented as part of Realignment.
•Offenders convicted of non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex related felonies became ineligible for sentencing that includes confinement in state prison. This responsibility for housing “low level felons” had always been the responsibility of the state. This placed a number of felons in county jails for extended sentences. Jails were not designed for long-term housing and treatment of offenders. Additionally, many offenders who commit crimes while incarcerated in the prison system, serve terms for those new convictions in county jails. This presence of serious and sophisticated felons has increased jail populations, as well as the level of violence in our jail.
•Parole violators became ineligible for return to state prison for parole violations, and county jails became responsible for housing parole violators for the full term of their violations. This also increased jail populations and reduced consequences for parole violators.
•All inmates in county jails became eligible for day for day, or “half-time” credits, as opposed to the “third-time” credits that existed prior to realignment. This change significantly reduced periods of confinement for all offenders sentenced to serve time in county jails.
•Probation departments became responsible for supervising low-level offenders released from state prisons under a program called “Post-release Community Supervision.” This responsibility had previously been borne by state parole. Probation also became responsible for supervising felons released from county jails as ordered by a judge, under a program called “Mandatory Supervision.” This increased the workload of county probation departments and reduced the workload of state parole.
One of the identified goals of “Realignment” was to reduce criminal recidivism rates. In December of 2017, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report titled Realignment and Recidivism in California. The study examined recidivism rates in 12 California counties and found that realignment has not substantially affected recidivism rates.
Realignment proved to have a large impact on Lassen County. The jail population saw a large increase, as well as a greater need for medical and mental health services. The jail has also experienced challenges in maintaining adequate housing for the expanded offender classifications. The overall culture and atmosphere of the jail has changed and acts of violence have increased. Additionally, the probation department assumed a new role and responsibility for overseeing offenders released from prisons. On the positive side, realignment funding has helped to re-establish rehabilitative programs in the jail and in the probation operated “Day Reporting Center.” I will expand upon the in-custody programming in my article related to the county jail.
Proposition 47, also known as the “Safe neighborhoods and Schools Act” was approved by California voters in November of 2014. Proposition 47 reduced many felonies to misdemeanors, allowed some offenders in prison to petition the court for resentencing and allowed some convicted felons to petition the court to have their convictions reduced to misdemeanors. This substantial reduction in criminal consequence has caused a number of issues. Crimes including firearms theft, identity theft, possession of “date rape” drugs and possession of dangerous drugs including methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin no longer carry the potential of a felony conviction. Without the ability to arrest, prosecute, or sentence these crimes as felonies, offenders can commit these crimes time after time and never face more serious consequences for their criminal conduct or be compelled to participate in treatment programs. Additionally, commercial burglaries (burglaries of our local businesses) have been an ongoing issue and cause great harm to the business owners who are helping to develop our local economy. Under Proposition 47, commercial burglary is classified as a straight misdemeanor.
These crimes that the state has classified as “low level” crimes are also commonly referred to as “quality of life” crimes because they substantially affect the quality of life of the victims and our communities. That is exactly what we have seen in Lassen County. The community is frustrated and angry about the ongoing theft, burglaries and other “quality of life” crimes.
Proposition 47 reduced the options available to Judges and Prosecutors in choosing the appropriate level of disposition for these crimes. It limits their ability to see that justice is served for the community and the victims of crime.
Law enforcement officers have broader authority when investigating and making arrests for felonies. Under Proposition 47, law enforcement officers are limited in their ability to make arrests for violations. Offenders see no immediate consequence for their actions, and they remain free to continue victimizing our good citizens.
Proposition 57 was passed by California voters in November of 2016.
Proposition 57 was designed to make offenders convicted of “non-violent” felonies eligible for parole consideration after serving the full sentence on their primary charge. Prior to Proposition 57, offenders would not have been eligible for parole consideration until they had served time for the primary charge, along with enhancements. These enhancements often add significant amounts of time to a sentence. In addition to earlier parole consideration, Proposition 57 provided additional sentence reductions for good behavior, and/or participation in rehabilitation and education programs.
These reforms accelerated releases from prison and resulted in more than 4,500 early releases from state prisons.
When voters approved Proposition 57, they did it with the belief that violent sex offenders would be exempt from the provisions of Proposition 57. In January 2018, a Superior Court judge ruled that sex offenders must be given the same early parole consideration as “non-serious/non-violent” offenders.
The provisions of Proposition 57 are going to drastically reduce the amount of time many felons spend in prison. Additionally, the enhancements that are often due to aggravating criminal circumstances associated with conduct, can be effectively set aside by a state parole board.
The cumulative affect of all of these reforms is apparent in our communities.
Essentially, crime is on sale. The current criminal consequences provide little value as a deterrent, there is little incentive for offenders to transition away from a criminal lifestyle and little leverage to push offenders into treatment and programs that may lead to positive justice system outcomes. On the positive side, the sheriff’s office and our law enforcement partners have not thrown in the towel and given up our responsibility to preserve the peace in our communities. Personnel on patrol and in the jail work hard each day within the confines of the law to provide the best service possible. The role we play may have changed, and the outcomes may be different, but we remain diligent in our service to the people of the county.