Former state Sen. Rod Wright turned himself in to Los Angeles County jail authorities Friday night to begin a 90-day sentence for his perjury and fraud conviction, but was released before ever seeing the inside of a cell.
Wright, a Democrat, turned himself in around 9:30 p.m. and was released at 10:41 p.m. after being processed and booked, said Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
She said he did not get any special treatment for being a politician.
“Everyone goes through the same process,” Nishida said.
Wright was convicted of eight felonies, including perjury and voting fraud, for lying about where he lived when he ran for office in 2008. The nonviolent nature of his crime, his lack of prior convictions and crowding in the jail contributed to the decision to process and release him, Nishida said. She said jail authorities use a complex formula that takes those factors into account to determine how long all criminals will spend in jail.
“A lot of people are not serving 100 percent of their time because of overcrowding,” Nishida said.
Wright’s situation highlights the trickle-down effect of California’s prison realignment program, in which state prisons are shifting low-level offenders to county jails, creating more crowding in those facilities and prompting local authorities to set some criminals free.
Gov. Jerry Brown pushed for realignment as a way to give local governments more control while the state complies with a federal court order to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons, whose populations have skyrocketed since the 1970s as laws passed to mandate harsher sentences.
Californians scratching their heads over Wright’s quick release could see it as a tangible example of the impacts of prison crowding – or as a sign that powerful people get treated better than everyone else, said Jessica Levinson, a professor of political law at Loyola Law School.
“When there is a high profile person … and we know they serve an infinitesimal fraction of their sentence, it really hits home for us. It is a minor part of a bigger discussion about what overcrowding means, and the supply and demand of prisons,” Levinson said.
“But a lot of people will get from that: ‘I always knew Rod Wright was never really going to serve, because he is a VIP and would get special treatment.’”
Wright’s attorney said he got no preferential treatment.
“This is typical,” said Winston Kevin McKesson, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles.
“The jails are overcrowded. The jails should be reserved for people who are dangerous to society. Senator Wright presents no danger to society. In fact, he is an asset to society.”
Wright, 62, served 12 years in the Legislature before he resigned from the Senate in September after a Los Angeles judge upheld a jury’s guilty verdicts and sentenced him to 90 days in jail. Jurors found that Wright lied about where he lived – claiming a home he owns in Inglewood as his address for political purposes, while actually living a few miles away in the tonier neighborhood of Baldwin Hills.
Wright argued that he met all the legal requirements to use the Inglewood home as his official address, or “domicile,” and asked Judge Kathleen Kennedy to toss the jury’s verdicts and grant him a new trial. She denied his requests and admonished him for disrespecting the electoral process by lying about where he lived. Kennedy said Wright is banished for life from holding public office.
California law requires a legislative candidate to live in the district he wants to represent. It’s an area of the law that many argue is murky and inconsistently applied. Many legislators in the Capitol have multiple homes, or change addresses as political opportunities arise. Los Angeles prosecutors have gone after politicians for residency violations, while prosecutors in most other counties have not.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office that prosecuted Wright said the agency would have no comment about his quick release from jail.
McKesson, Wright’s attorney, said he is working on an appeal, and expects “the senator to be vindicated totally, because he complied with the law.”
Even after Wright was convicted, his attorneys argued that jail time was not an appropriate punishment for him. So the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department decision to not lock him up was a small vindication for McKesson.
“The Sheriff’s Department obviously agreed with our argument,” McKesson said. “What you have here is somebody in authority looking at this case and doing the right thing.”
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.