By Eric Siddall
The recent murder of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sergeant Steve Owens, Palm Springs Police Officers Jose Vega and Lesley Zerebny by career criminals is a bitter tragedy for their families, and a great loss for all of law enforcement and the communities they bravely served.
In the Palm Springs murders, the suspect charged has gang ties and was convicted in a prior shooting. In Los Angeles, Sheriff McDonnell commented that Steve Owens death should start a serious conversation about policies that allowed the gunman to cycle in and out of custody for years.
The recent and proposed changes to our criminal laws, led by Governor Brown, the State Legislature, and via ballot initiatives foisted on the public by pro-criminal “justice reform” groups, have made and will make all Californians less safe. They are the driving reason why California’s violent crime rate increase was more than twice the national average in 2015, and why California suffered near double increases in the property crime rate in 2014 and 2015 while the rest of the nation saw property crime rates decline in both those years.
First, let’s start with the supervision of the violent career criminal charged in the execution murder of Sgt. Owens following his release from prison in 2014 after he served a six-year sentence for armed robbery. According to news reports, we have learned that on three separate occasions in the last two years he was arrested for new crimes, suffered two new criminal convictions, but no parole hold was ever placed on him by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). A September 2015 arrest for driving under the influence resulted in a 28-day jail sentence and probation; an April 2016 arrest that resulted in another sentence of probation and credit for 15 days’ custody, and in July 2016 he was arrested again.
Had the justice system worked properly, this violent criminal would have had his probation revoked for the April 2016 or July 2016 arrest, and this felon would not have been on the street and able to murder Steve Owen. Instead, in what it is clearly an attempt to game statistics and make the recidivism rate for violent ex-felons look lower than it actually is, it appears that parole holds are not be being placed on violent felons when they violate probation by having either new arrests or convictions for new crimes.
What keeps me up at night is that if Prop 57 passes, the people at CDCR are the ones Governor Brown assures us will be carefully screening the tens of thousands of inmates his Prop. 57 makes eligible for early release from prison.
Next, thanks to Prop. 47, the stolen firearm that the career criminal had in his possession was only a misdemeanor offense. The pro-criminal folks behind Prop. 47 reduced the crime of possession of a stolen gun from a felony to a misdemeanor offense; Governor Brown vetoed a bill earlier this year that overwhelmingly passed the state legislature and restored the crime to a felony.
Further, although this career criminal has two prior robbery convictions, Prop. 36 wiped away the potential 25-life sentence, the judge previously had the discretion to impose for being an ex-felon in possession. Passed in 2012, this proposition changed the three strikes law by permitting life sentences only when the current crime is a serious or violent offense. Felon in possession of a gun is not a qualifying offense. Also, AB 109 ensured that if this felon had been sentenced to prison for possessing the gun, a violation of parole upon release would result not result in a return to prison, but instead a short stint in local jail.
If Prop. 62 is approved by the voters in November, the career criminals charged in these recent cold-blooded murders of peace officers will not face the death penalty. Instead, they will at most face a sentence of life in prison without parole. I say at most, because if you read the writings of those who lead the campaign to repeal of the death penalty you know a ballot initiative to eliminate life without parole is next on their agenda. In their view, replacing the death penalty with life without parole removes “one terrible idea only to replace it with another” as in their view “life without parole is as dehumanizing as death itself, and in some ways, it is even worse.” This is one reason why I, like other Deputy District Attorneys, support Proposition 66 – would preserve the death penalty for the most heinous criminals by enacting critically needed reforms to the system.
California ended the crime wave that started in the 1970’s and continued into the early 1990’s with measures such as determinate sentencing and three strikes. Incarcerating for lengthy periods of time felons who had committed violent crimes and had long criminal records led to a remarkable and sustained drop in crime. Proponents of lowering criminal penalties claimed that public safety would be enhanced, but that has been disproved by crime statistics, just as their estimates of “cost savings” through decreased incarceration have not materialized but in fact have in fact been dwarfed by the increased costs to residents and businesses from the rising crime rate.
In years past, Steve Owen’s death in the line of duty by this poster boy of a criminal justice system gone awry would have led to the serious conversation Sheriff McDonnell called for. However, since California is only in the early stages of a crime wave unleashed by these changes, with the proponents still claiming it is “too early” to draw conclusions, I am not optimistic that a serious conversation will occur. Instead, it will take a few more years for the public to accept statistics proving the arguments of the pro-criminal crowd for reduced penalties only led to more crime. Sadly, those statistics will consist of tens of thousands of real people unnecessarily victimized because of foolish experiments on the hardworking residents of California.
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Eric Siddall is Vice 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. To contact a Board member, click here.