Editorials

State, judges should rethink early release of some felons

Pelican Bay State Prison outside Crescent City.
Pelican Bay State Prison outside Crescent City. MCT file

By many measures, Gov. Jerry Brown has improved California’s criminal justice system as he has fought and finally sought to comply with court orders forcing an end to unconstitutional prison conditions.

But compelled by a 2014 order from the federal judges who oversee prison operations, the Brown administration is freeing felons who by their actions have proved they do not deserve to have their sentences shortened.

As reported by The Sacramento Bee’s Darrell Smith last week, nearly 1,100 supposedly nonviolent inmates who had been convicted of at least one prior serious felony were approved for early release in the first nine months of the year by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Under a procedure in place since January, prison authorities give Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, like prosecutors in all counties, 30-day notices about pending releases. She can write letters opposing the release but can’t make her case in person, or appeal.

Clearly frustrated, Schubert has begun posting on her website letters her deputies have written opposing the releases. Other prosecutors should follow her lead, and the judges should rethink the November 2014 edict that may end up endangering the public with its zeal.

Consider, for example, Willie C. Harris, in prison for seven drunken driving convictions. In a letter to prison officials, Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Robin B. Shakely warned that there “there is little doubt that once Harris is free, he will pick up a bottle and drink and drive, yet again.”

True to form, Harris, having been released May 9, was rearrested on suspicion of driving under the influence on June 5.

Altogether, the state has released 17 felons back to Sacramento County under this particular program. Five, including Harris, have been rearrested. Dozens more are scheduled to be released.

The inmates are classified as “nonviolent second strikers.” What the rest of us might consider a nonviolent crime probably wouldn’t jibe with the law’s view of violence.

One woman listed on Schubert’s website, for example, had stabbed two people and was beating a man when police arrested her, according to the letter prepared by one of Schubert’s deputies.

All the inmates covered by the judges’ order will be released at some point. But based on Schubert’s sampling, the longer many of these second strikers remain locked up, the safer the rest of us will be.

Consider, for example, Willie C. Harris, in prison for seven drunken driving convictions. True to form, Harris, having been released May 9, was rearrested on suspicion of driving under the influence on June 5.

In May 2011, five months after Brown took office, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison conditions were unconstitutionally crowded. Clearly, something had to give.

Brown responded by pushing through a major criminal justice overhaul, shifting the burden for handling lower level criminals to counties and increasing spending on rehabilitation. Today, there are 116,235 people in state prisons and camps, down from 147,861 when Brown was elected in 2010, and 165,727 a decade ago.

Although the number of second-strike inmates being released is small, police and social workers already are grappling with tens of thousands of other people with criminal histories who remain in communities because of changes brought about by Brown and voter-approved initiatives.

By approving initiatives in 2012 and 2014 that softened three strikes and reduced certain felonies to misdemeanors, voters showed they’re tired of the old lock ’em up and throw away the keys attitudes. That’s probably for the best. But pendulums swing. As Brown, the former attorney general, knows, public support for rehabilitation can crumble quickly, particularly if the public believes its champions have overreached.

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