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Criminal justice, sentencing reforms gain traction

An inmate gestures through the bars of his prison cell. (Photo: Sakhorn, Shutterstock)

For decades, Californians and their representatives in the state Capitol had a “lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” approach to lawbreakers.

But that view is changing.

At a recent, sold-out conference at the Sacramento Convention Center, hundreds of crime survivors spoke about their experiences being victims of assault and in some cases being victims of their own communities.

The search for crime solutions is in stark contrast to past approaches that included harsher penalties and a massive expansion of the state prison system.

The conference was sponsored by a group called Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, an organization that is part of the nonprofit group Californians for Safety and Justice, or CSJ.

CSJ, according to its mission, urges replacing “prison and justice system waste with common sense solutions that create safe neighborhoods and save public dollars.”

The group’s search for improving the criminal justice system is in stark contrast to past approaches that included harsher penalties and a massive expansion of the state prison system. California’s prisons currently hold about 130,000 inmates, according to the state Corrections Department.

CSJ co-sponsored voter-approved Proposition 47 of 2014, which downgraded a number of nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors from felonies to help reduce the state prison population. No inmate is automatically released because of Proposition 47, but the initiative allows inmates to petition the courts to reclassify certain offenses and calculate sentences accordingly. By some estimates, the measure will result in the ultimate release of 10,000 inmates currently behind bars and curb future incarceration for thousands more. Proposition 47 was favored by about 4.2 million voters out of the 6.1 million ballots cast, a 3-to-2 ratio of support.

“It’s a remarkable reversal of where we’ve been,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “To focus on, I think, what’s right – and that’s new momentum and new cooperation with law enforcement.”

In the world of criminal justice, doing “what’s right” once meant having a tough-on-crime approach. But advocates for different types of reform are gaining momentum in the Capitol and among the larger public.

“Simply put, the reduction in sentences proposed by Proposition 47 would ultimately lead to the release of thousands of dangerous criminals.” — Dianne Feinstein

Following years of a steadily increasing prison population and certain communities repeatedly being devastated by crime, public discussion has shifted in part toward reforming law enforcement’s approach to crime prevention.

“And I think really what impresses me most is the leadership here in Sacramento,” said Newsom, a candidate for governor in 2018 who sees sentencing and prison reform as key issues. “It’s more open to argument and interested in evidence. It’s not the raging ideological war that we’ve had in the past. There was neutrality, for example, from a lot of law enforcement agencies on Prop 47, which was suggestive.”

Many are deeply skeptical, however. Proposition 47 was opposed by the associations representing California’s prosecutors and chiefs of police, and by a number of county sheriffs across the state. Leading the opposition was U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and long one of the state’s most popular politicians.

“Simply put, the reduction in sentences proposed by Proposition 47 would ultimately lead to the release of thousands of dangerous criminals, and a wholesale reclassification of many dangerous felonies as misdemeanors would put the people of California at continued risk going forward,” she said during the campaign.

But voters disagreed, approving the initiative designed to curb back certain penalties for “non-serious, non-violent crimes,” like stealing, fraud, and use or possession of illicit drugs.

Newsom said it’s time to start reconciling the past mistakes of the justice system, which is why he’s ‘”out front” on issues like the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana for adults.

For months, Proposition 47 flew under the public’s radar until it got a boost from celebrity advocates voicing their support. Oscar-winner John Legend was one of them; he wrote a blog piece in the Huffington Post urging Californians to approve the measure. He also attended CSJ’s conference last week in Sacramento as part of a new campaign he’s launched to reform the country’s criminal justice policies.

“A lot of politicians before would have been afraid to take these kinds of stances because, inevitably, somebody is gong to get out of prison and do something bad and a lot of politicians would be scared that would be the next campaign commercial against them,” Legend said, “But if we’re going to be wise about these policies, if we’re going to be just for society as a whole, we’re going to have to take some risks. And I’m glad we have someone like Lt. Gov. Newsom who can do that with us.”

Newsom said it’s time to start reconciling the past mistakes of the justice system, which is why he’s ‘”out front” on issues like the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana for adults, and moving “forward in a new direction of drug policy.”

Some Republican and moderate Democrats have also proposed bills to alter Proposition 47 on issues related to gun theft penalties, possession of date rape drugs, and collection of DNA.

His pro-reform narrative is being pushed by some Democratic legislators, who this year have proposed several bills focused on taking a look at local police departments’ presence in their communities. That includes funding and mandating guidelines for body-worn cameras, increasing mental health services, and fulfilling Proposition 47’s stated goal of reforming the perpetrators of crime.

“Our organizational focus is to reduce wasteful practices in the criminal justice system and increasing smart solutions to stop the cycle of crime,” said CSJ Executive Director Lenore Anderson.

Anderson said her group strongly supports comprehensive trauma recovery services, which will see a boost in funding through Proposition 47’s Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.

Some Republican and moderate Democrats have also proposed bills to alter Proposition 47 on issues related to gun theft penalties, possession of date rape drugs, and collection of DNA.

According to the legislative platform of the California Peace Officers Association of California, their priority is to “inform the Legislature on effective mental health support practices.”

There’s a bill to amend the law so theft of guns valued at less than $950 would be considered a felony, a proposal that drew CSJ’s attention.

“Our only opposition to that particular bill is just based on the fact that we don’t want to confuse the issue. We think you can and should prosecute guns as felonies,” she said. CSJ supports amendments related to possession of illicit rape drugs and encourages the Legislature to look at DNA collection for law enforcement, but sees the latter as separate from Proposition 47.

A number of misdemeanor crimes – domestic violence, stalking, brandish of firearms, animal cruelty – currently, and prior to the passage of Proposition 47, require no DNA selection.

“When is it most appropriate that we should collect DNA?” Anderson said. “Let’s take a close look at a variety of times for which there is no DNA collection and for which there is likely correlative between potential future dangerous behavior,” she noted.

“One of the reasons that we are very supportive of and actively engaged in advocating for increased funding for trauma recovery services,” she added, “is because comprehensive trauma recovery services result in is increased trust and increased cooperation with law enforcement – between crime victims and law enforcement.”

Law enforcement also sees the value in these services. According to the legislative platform of the California Peace Officers Association of California, their priority is to “inform the Legislature on effective mental health support practices.”

Some members of law enforcement have pointed out problems resulting from the passage of Proposition 47, such as increasing numbers of theft since its approval. But the approach they are taking to resolving these problems has changed, fueled in part by an array of high-profile, lethal cases involving police departments around the country.

Mike Durant, president of the Police Officers Research Association of California, told his members this month, “It would be naïve for any of us in law enforcement to believe that the entire landscape, both legislatively and in terms of media outreach, has not been changed dramatically since the tragedies in Ferguson and New York.”

“Almost every encounter between law enforcement and private citizens is being viewed in some quarters as bullying or strong-arm tactics by officers,” Durant wrote. “All of us should recognize that we have entered an age when we need to reacquaint ourselves with those we have sworn to protect and serve, and to educate policymakers and our own neighbors that we became law enforcement officers because of our great respect for working with our community.”

Ed’s Note: Corrects weapon value to $950, sted $975, in 22nd graf.


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