Is Proposition 57 a get-out-of-jail-free card containing dire consequences for our cities, streets and homes, or is it a desperately needed constitutional change that will make our prisons less crowded and provide hope to prisoners seeking redemption?
Jerry Brown is perhaps the most popular politician in California history, having been elected governor four times. Proposition 57 is his personal crusade.
He insists this is the only way to fix the unfair “determinate sentencing law” he signed in 1977. The heart of Proposition 57 will reduce the time spent in prison before nonviolent felons become eligible for parole. That, says Brown, will reduce prison crowding and give many prisoners incentive for true reform.
But Valley law enforcement officials stand almost unanimously against it. The same district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs who two years ago predicted Proposition 47 would crowd our jails beyond capacity and create a “catch-and-release” criteria for most petty criminals are saying Proposition 57 would be worse.
Scare tactics? Perhaps, but they were right in 2014 and we fear they will be right again. We recommend voting “no” on Proposition 57.
Still, we don’t believe in a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy. We embrace the governor’s goals.
He’s trying to fix a law he signed in 1977 that linked specific crimes to specific sentences. Later, “enhancements” were added – use a gun, get an additional 10 years in prison; you’re a gang member, that’s 10 more; drugs involved, more time.
The sentence for simple robbery might be five years. But if a gang member is holding a gun, his sentence could be “enhanced” to 25. There are thousands of such enhancements, all of which are considered before a parole hearing is granted. Most prisoners are eligible to be considered for parole after serving half of their sentences.
In our example, the robber would be in prison for at least 13 years. That’s a long time for a troubled 16-year-old.
Brown wants parole consideration for nonviolent felons based on the “core” crime, meaning a robber would get a parole hearing after 2 1/2 years.
Proposition 57’s language was hurriedly attached to a more limited initiative concerning juvenile defendants. When the DAs finally saw it, they were alarmed that the definition of “nonviolent crimes” could include some rapes, hostage-taking or being involved in a drive-by shooting.
They were also concerned that, under Proposition 57, victims and prosecutors would no longer attend parole board hearings.
The board “might accept a letter from the victim,” said Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten, “but we’ve seen time and again where the written word isn’t as persuasive as a crime victim standing in front of a board.”
The legislative analyst says Proposition 57 would make 30,000 prisoners eligible for parole consideration. If half were paroled it would dramatically lower prison populations, but also send roughly 375 felons back to Merced, Stanislaus and south San Joaquin counties, based on population.
“We’re going to be dealing with people who have committed violent offenses, including gang members,” said Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II. “We took out 28 midlevel Nortenos under our operation ‘Red Hand,’ and now the homicide rate is down. This is going to send them back to Merced County, back to Stanislaus County – guys who have committed gang-related crimes.”
Brown insists that being eligible doesn’t mean parole will be granted. “Charlie Manson hasn’t gotten out; Sirhan Sirhan hasn’t gotten out,” he said. “The point is to balance the unfettered, unbalanced discretion of the DA with a professional group of people (parole board) who are less susceptible to the excitement and alarm when these horrible crimes happen.”
Calling it “profoundly important,” Brown is backing Proposition 57 with $7 million of his own political funds.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct an error – since I committed the error, I want to fix it,” he said. “Nobody asked me to do this, nobody. And nobody can go to the people except me. … Based on everything I know, and everything that is holy, this is the right thing to do.”
When this governor reaches back to his Jesuit training and speaks of redemption, he is extremely persuasive. He convinced the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee editorial boards. He convinced us that reformation should be the goal of our state’s 33 prisons. But we don’t believe Proposition 57 is the only opportunity to fix a bad system.
Better to involve everyone in developing a plan that police chiefs, DAs and sheriffs can embrace. A plan less likely to put our cities, our streets and our families in jeopardy.