By Michele Hanisee
National outrage ensued over a six-month county jail sentence imposed this past week on a former Stanford student who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. A powerful 12-page letter by the victim describing the emotional and psychological devastation the attack inflicted upon her failed to sway the sentencing Judge, who explained he did not sentence the defendant to state prison because “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” Sadly, the reasoning by the Judge encapsulates the wholesale turnover in the criminal justice system the past several years, spearheaded by Governor Brown, the State Legislature, and “criminal justice reform” groups.
One only has to look at actions by both branches of the Legislature and the Governor over the past months. The California Assembly passed AB 2590, explicitly removing “punishment” as a purpose for incarceration. For his part, the Governor is placing on the November 2016 ballot aninitiative releasing violent convicts early from prison by allowing them to avoid serving sentence enhancements. Not be outdone, the State Senate recently voted to go one better on enhancements by repealing from the Penal Code a three-year enhancement imposed for a new conviction on criminals for selling or transporting drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, or PCP.
Recently enacted legislation includes SB 261, rewarding those who were between 18-23 when convicted of crimes such as murder with accelerated parole hearings on the grounds that adults of those ages are less culpable because of incomplete judgement and decision-making skills-notwithstanding our country entrusting thousands of young men and women and police forces at the very same ages with authority to make life and death decisions.
Maybe those behind the rash of this legislation, like the Judge in the sexual assault case, do so because they lament the “severe impact” of prison on criminals. Perhaps, like Governor Brown, they believe attending a few classes in prison and saying the right things to a parole board is evidence of “rehabilitation” and should be rewarded with an early release. Or, maybe, the don’t believe convicted criminals should be sent to prison-after all, Governor Brown famously berated San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos in a phone call last year, yelling at him that “Your county is sending too many people to prison.”
Forces have been long plowing the ground for this change, taking advantage of a public accepting as normal and permanent the drastic fall in crime since Brown’s last stint as Governor. It took legislation increasing criminal penalties and incarcerating repeat offenders to lead to a reversal of the massive crime rate during his last tenure.
Unfortunately, whether deceptively labeling their proposed changes, or convincing the public that California spends more on prisons than any other program, these forces have an upper hand. On the budget, for example, government spending, the Governor’s latest proposed budgetwill spend $65 billion on education, $32 billion for social services programs, and $10 billion on prisons. Deception is symbolized by Proposition 47, which proponents referred to as the “Safe Neighborhood and Schools Acts.” It had nothing to do with schools, but as predicted by District Attorneys across California, has led to a rising crime rate and an ever increasing number of victims in this state.
A hand-wringing Los Angeles Times editorial on the sentencing of the Stanford student trumpeted that “Criminal sentencing decisions belong to judges, not the outraged public” It is ironic that the same Times Editorial Board lauded a system where carefully crafted sentences are handed down by “trained and experienced judge with the evidence and the probation report before him” yet praised Governor Brown’s initiativewhich will transfer that power to eviscerate those sentences to unelected and unaccountable parole boards.
Perhaps those spearheading the changes in the adult criminal justice system want it to become the juvenile justice system. There, convictions are called “true findings“, records are sealed in a matter month, the failure to pay restitution to victims is ignored, informal probation which requires little more than an apology letter is common, and after arrest the accused is often released on “home supervision” (i.e., a curfew) to the very adults that have usually failed to supervise said accused in the first place.
Whether it be a lenient sentence handed down by a Judge dismissive of harm to a sexual assault victim, a haughty editorial dismissive of public outrage over that sentence, a Legislature determined to unravel punishments the public has demanded via initiative and hard-fought legislation, or a Governor who is willing to deceive the public on the impact of his prison release initiative to get it passed, there is one common thread.
In California, victims are taking a distant second fiddle to the convicted criminals who victimized them. Perhaps we will soon even stop referring to people who commit crimes as criminals, as Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently did when calling juveniles accused or convicted of crimes as “justice involved youth.” Sadly, it appears that in California only when the number of victims grows to unbearable levels will the “impact” of a crime on the victim will outweigh the “impact” of punishment on the convicted criminal.