Recently we reconnected with a mother whose son was sentenced to 35 years to life. It was a case we covered a few years ago, where her son and others were convicted of attempted murder after they fired on what turned out to be an uninhabited dwelling in Woodland.
By the time the DA added gang and gun enhancements, her son received the life sentence where he won’t even be eligible for parole until he’s served 85 percent of the time, and then only if a parole board – notoriously stingy, especially with gang cases – approves his release.
She acknowledges that what he did was extremely dangerous, not to mention stupid. She agrees he needed to be punished for what he did. But she also points out that the gang charges were somewhat suspect – he had no criminal record and no gang tattoos.
We have focused much of our efforts, and rightly so, on people who are factually innocent of crimes – and yet have been convicted. But for many in the criminal justice system, a bigger problem is people who have been either overcharged or locked up for a disproportionate amount of time.
In the case above, it is tricky. There are those who will argue, and rightly so, that the person did not know that the individual they were targeting was not home and it was therefore sheer luck that no one was hurt. I agree with that assessment.
At the same time, no one was hurt and, therefore, the sentence seems excessive. Why are we arguing that someone who does something very stupid at the age of 20 should be effectively incarcerated for the rest of his life? At the very least. he should get a chance to make amends, and be given a second chance to become a productive member of society.
These are the kinds of cases that are very tricky – firing guns is extremely dangerous, and finding a way to give some of these kids a second chance carries some risk.
But in a lot of ways our charging and sentencing policies do not make a lot of sense to begin with. We end up sentencing people more as they get older and commit additional crimes. There is a logic to that – we tend to go easier on people who have been convicted of fewer crimes, assuming that those who repeatedly commit crimes are more likely to continue to do so.
The research shows that criminal activity actually peaks relatively early in life and, as individuals age, they commit fewer crimes and the crimes they commit tend to be less violent. The truly dangerous and unrepentant career criminals are relatively rare.
Not only are older people much less likely to commit further crimes, the cost to incarcerate them goes up as they require more health care.
In recent years we have seen a string of reforms to change the way we handle criminal justice issues. Many of these reforms have focused on non-violent offenders. For instance, AB 109 has pushed non-violent offenders out of the prison system and into local custody. Proposition 47 has reduced drug possession and petty theft in most cases to misdemeanors.
Proposition 36 has reduced non-violent third strike offenses to second strikes – which still entails a good amount of prison time, as a second strike offense doubles the sentence. However, it is better than 25 to life for things like petty theft.
California voted against eliminating the death penalty back in 2012, but that measure is back on the ballot in the form of Proposition 62. This comes amid national polling showing that, for the first time, a majority are opposed to capital punishment.
California has some other criminal justice reforms on the ballot as well – that includes a measure that would legalize marijuana and an interesting measure, Proposition 57, that would make parole easier to obtain.
The Yolo County Board of Supervisors recently voted to oppose Prop. 57, citing the number of reforms that have already occurred. I am not sure why this is deemed so risky, as all it does is support “increasing parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes and allowing judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court.”
The former provision, really isn’t going to change things that much, as a parole board still has to approve the release.
Even Jim Provenza, generally liberal, opposed the measure, arguing, “This opens the way for violent offenders to be released into the community by a parole board with no accountability to anyone. It’s purported to apply just to nonviolent crimes but that’s based on a misunderstanding of the law. Under this, you can include violent felons in the people eligible for early parole.”
Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig argued that it would make a number of people eligible for parole who were dangerous, but everyone seems to ignore the fact that parole boards are extremely reluctant to parole violent individuals.
“There is no accountability built into this constitutional amendment,” Mr. Provenza said. “It lets the unelected parole board decide who to release.”
But again, he ignores just how difficult it is to get a parole board to grant release, and there are checks on the ability of parole boards to release prisoners anyway.
The other part of Prop. 57 is it ends the direct file system by the DA – they would have to petition the judge to do so. We have seen a number of cases where young teens get gang charges put on them to ensure they would be tried as adults – in some cases they ended up having those charges dropped or getting acquitted by a jury, and ended up back in the juvenile system – but not until after six months to a year in custody for kids as young as 14 and 15.
Prop. 57 may end up being a step too far for voters. We will see what happens with Prop. 57, Prop. 62, Prop 66. (which is the opposite of Prop. 62) and Prop. 64.
The key question is can we be safe and keep crime near historically low levels, without reflexively locking people away well before the need?
—David M. Greenwald reporting