By Michele Hanisee
Politically shrewd politicians convince voters to support a plan to relieve prison overcrowding by promising only “non-violent felons” will be granted early release. Voters pass the plan, making it state law. But when it comes time to heave open the prison doors, they’re stunned to learn that those being freed include brutal criminals convicted of murder, attempted murder, assault, battery and a host of other heinous offenses.
Sadly, for all Californians, this is not the plot of a fictional horror film. It’s our Kafkaesque nightmare, imposed on us courtesy of Prop. 57. Prop 57 was designed to give the Board of Parole unreviewable authority to make early releases. The Parole Board has also interpreted Prop 57 as allowing them to preclude both District Attorneys and victims from personally appearing to oppose parole. To hear Governor Brown tell it, these procedures were designed so a “quiet parole board” could engage in deliberative thought on who should be released from prison. In reality, the Parole Board is acting quietly – they are quietly approving release of both non-violent and violent offenders.
We highlight, below, four decisions of early release under Prop 57 which prove that the Parole Board is releasing inmates convicted of violent crimes. In each instance the board acknowledged the violence of the men’s crimes, and that all but one committed additional offenses while in prison. Nonetheless, they concluded that there is no reason these men shouldn’t be released early. These cases, and other parole releases highlighted recently by the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office, refute the claim that only “non-violent” inmates are being released in the race to empty state prisons.
Luis Steven Flores
Luis Steven Flores‘ criminal record began in 1995, and he has been incarcerated since 2002. He was originally sentenced to 16 years and four months in prison for two counts of assault with a semi-automatic firearm/use of firearm and one count of transporting/selling a controlled substance. In 2002, while behind bars, he was convicted of two separate in-prison crimes: aggravated battery on a prison officer for throwing a liquid believed to be urine on a prison nurse; and for kicking a correctional officer. The inmate was re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. “His actions were violent,” says the release letter. Then, in 2005, Flores was given a “Rules Violation” for attempted murder. The release letter goes on to say that in September of 2017, (shortly before Prop 57 was approved by the voters) the inmate was again re-sentenced, this time to 10 years for a total term of 26 years and 4 months. No explanation is given in the release letter as to why the inmate’s life-sentence was converted to a non-life sentence.
The Parole Board acknowledged there was unspecified “negative information” in Flores’ confidential file, and that he was not eligible for release on his original convictions. Further, the Board stated “It is clear … that the inmate has an extensive history of violence,” and his attempted murder rules violation was “extremely serious.” However, rather incredibly in January 2018, the Board found Flores suitable for early release. “[T]he incident (the attempted murder), while extremely serious, occurred 12 years ago…” said the letter, therefore, Flores did not pose “an unreasonable risk for violence at this time.”
Jose Robles Lara
Jose Robles Lara‘s criminal history began in 1993, with convictions for burglary in the first degree and grand theft person. He was subsequently sentenced to 33 years behind bars for 10 more burglaries he committed in 1998 and 1999. While in prison, he lunged at and repeatedly punched a female correctional counselor, requiring her to be transported to the hospital. Later, two years were added onto his sentence after a search turned up an altered razor in his cell. In the last few years, he committed a series of violations including obstructing a peace officer and two incidents of controlled substance use – most recently in 2016.
Both the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and Imperial County District Attorney’s Office opposed Lara’s early release, as he had served only 20 years of his 35-year prison sentence. However, the Board of Parole stated that since Lara had not committed any crimes of violence in prison since 2000, and his other multiple rules violations did not involve violence, this serial residential burglar was approved for release 15 years early. Lara was granted release in January 2018.
Next up is Bennie T. Locke. Just over two years ago, Locke and a co-defendant used a knife to slash the knee and face of a woman with whom they were drinking. This vicious assault earned Locke a mere four years behind bars. But that was far from his first crime. His criminal history began in 1980, with a conviction for robbery with a deadly weapon and has continued almost unabated since then. He has racked up an array of convictions for inflicting corporal injury on a spouse, multiple counts of possession of a narcotic controlled substance, possession of a narcotic controlled substance for sale, receiving stolen property, vehicle theft, evading while driving recklessly, false identity and possession of a controlled substance in jail/prison.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office opposed his release. Yet, despite the fact that his last violent crime occurred just before Christmas 2015, the board determined he does not pose an unreasonable risk of violence to the community. They justified their conclusion with the pretzel-logic that because Locke was 57 years old with educational limitations and had not incurred any violent rules violations in the two years of his most recent prison commitment, this career criminal deserved an early release from prison.
Finally, let us meet Nicholas Joseph Davanzo who was sent to prison in 2014, after being convicted of Assault with Force Likely to Produce Great Bodily Injury. He had two felony convictions in the three years prior; Burglary and Manufacture/Sale of a Leaded Cane. His criminal history began in 2010, with convictions for burglary and manufacturing what are commonly called a blackjack, sap, or slungshot. In 2014, he was convicted of assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury for attacking his girlfriend during an argument, causing her to hit her head on a metal pole. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for this crime. “The circumstances of the inmate’s current commitment offense aggravate the inmate’s current risk of violence,” the parole review decision report states. Yet, even with this factual background and his victim asking the board to deny his early release, the board granted an early release with the excuse that “the inmate did not personally use a deadly weapon in the commitment offense.”
The inmates featured above committed attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and battery. Some of these are violent offenses as previously defined by law. Others, while not legally defined as violent, would certainly be considered violent by the voters who were promised that only non-violent offenders would get early release. These and other examples prove that Prop. 57 was a sham, with the Parole Board determined to look for any loophole or excuse to grant early release to inmates, regardless of how violent their criminal history is.
A concerted effort is now underway to reduce the damage caused by Prop 57 and its cousin, Prop 47. The Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act would, among other things, reclassify crimes that Prop. 57 considers “non-violent” – including rape of an unconscious person, sex trafficking of a child under age 14 and domestic violence – to prevent the early release of inmates convicted of these crimes. It also would hold serial thieves accountable, reinstate DNA collection for a number of misdemeanors and create judicial oversight of the broken state release system. For more information about the Act, including how you can help get it on the November 2018 statewide ballot, please visit www.keepcalsafe.org, and follow our progress on Facebook and Twitter (@KeepCalSafe).
Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.