A Radically Dangerous Experiment with Public Safety

By Eric Siddall

Governor Brown has proposed a radical experiment with public safety.  It will mean the early release of 40,000 prisoners. It will potentially give the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) unlimited power to grant early release for the remaining 80,000 prisoners, including those who committed murder, rape, and child molestation. This constitutional amendment will overturn four decades of carefully crafted sentencing laws, including 40 laws and 6 voter approved ballot initiatives. It will make it virtually impossible to prosecute juvenile murderers and rapists as adults.

The consequences of this initiative are far reaching.  Today, our article will focus on how the initiative seeks to reduce the prison sentences of all prisoners, not just “non-violent” offenders.

First, a general overview: The purpose of incarceration is three-fold; 1) to protect society; 2) to punish; and 3) to rehabilitate. Today, there are about 117,000 felons in California prisons. They are there because they committed violent and serious offenses against the public. They were all placed in prison by judges who examined the full record. The current state prison population represents the worst offenders in California. No one in state prison is there because of drug possession or minor theft related crime.  Recognizing these facts, Governor Brown deliberately attempted to mislead the public by entitling his initiative the “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016” — because who would vote for a proposition entitled, “Early Release for Felons, including murderers, rapists, and gang members”?

The mechanics of this constitutional amendment are simple. Prisoners will now be released based upon their primary offense, ignoring the original sentence handed down by a judge. It disregards sentencing enhancements and criminal history. This means if a crime was gang motivated, the additional sentencing enhancement will be meaningless. If the prisoner has an extensive criminal history, including violent strikes, he will be eligible for parole at the same time as the first time offender.

The initiative is a full-frontal assault on enhancements and anti-recidivist statutes. Besides ignoring enhancements and criminal history, when the parole date is reached, the parole commission will be given unchallengeable authority to immediately release the prisoner.

In addition, early release of all prisoners is enabled by this legislation.  The governor claims his initiative only applies to “non-violent” prisoners. This soothing claim that early release is limited to “non-violent” offenders is deliberately misleading.  The initiative allows CDCR to award unlimited additional conduct credits to shorten sentences of all state prisoners, not just those imprisoned for a “non-violent offense.”

In short, this initiative seeks to reduce prison sentences for all state prisoners, no matter their crime or their criminal history.  It ignores the harm those prisoners have done to their victims, disregards the use of guns in commission of a crime, and dismisses the motivation for a crime — all in a headlong rush to speed the release of dangerous criminals.

Eric Siddall is Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys.  He can be contacted at esiddall@laadda.com.  The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA, which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys.