A crucial decision confronts voters deciding Proposition 57 of the Nov. 8 ballot. What is of greater value: money the state might save from prematurely releasing several thousand felons from prison in the questionable hope that they will prove to be nonviolent. Or is it not far more important to prevent the probable and far greater human cost of the criminal violence and suffering and deaths that will result from their release?
The premise of Proposition 57 is that Californians were terribly wrong in the 1980s and 1990s when they voted to keep habitual repeat offenders – career criminals convicted of multiple felonies – in prison where they cannot reach and harm new victims. The three strikes initiative approved in 1994 and other sensible crime control laws prevented millions of Californians from becoming crime victims. It would be gross dereliction of duty to discard laws that have provided us protection of such proven effectiveness.
Proposition 57’s clear purpose is to gut three strikes and the very protections Californians voted for overwhelmingly to safeguard them from repeat violent criminals.
Most law enforcement professionals agreed then and do now that a criminal guilty of multiple crimes is highly likely to continue on a life of crime, often graduating to more serious and violent offenses until convicted and confined.
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It’s not just fatuous but dangerous to believe that prisoners convicted of rape of an unconscious victim, or assault with a deadly weapon other than a gun, or hostage taking, or failure to register as a sex offender, or providing guns to gang members, or two dozen other crimes can be safely released, as Proposition 57 prescribes, if they simply undertake vocational job training, rehabilitation, and engage in good behavior.
These programs are available to prisoners now and they are encouraged to participate. Parole boards can consider them now, though board members are rightly skeptical. But under 57, a prisoner now serving extended sentences for egregious or multiple crimes will be released after serving only the base term for his most recent nonviolent crime, without consideration of preceding violent felonies. Californians will suffer hundreds and thousands of new violent felonies.
If the initiative becomes law, repeat offenders would be treated like first-time offenders, no matter how many crimes they have committed, or how many victims they have harmed. That’s crazy.
There is no evidence to support the dangerous wishful thinking of Proposition 57. There is only the assertion that people who have committed clearly violent felonies can be treated as though they are nonviolent. And returned to society without risk. Wishing that felons will not be violent does not make it so.
There is painful evidence to the contrary. Proposition 57 is a repeat offense of Proposition 47, which Californians were conned into approving in 2014. That bad idea put thousands of felons back on our streets early, and California has suffered a rise in violent crime two and a half times greater than the national increase, according to the FBI.
Many of the same misrepresentations urging voter approval of 47’s “nonviolent” early release provisions are being recycled on the Proposition 57 website. Worse, 57 is a constitutional amendment, making it all but impossible to fix.
That’s why organizations representing crime victims, police chiefs, sheriffs, correctional officers, district attorneys and police officers vehemently oppose Proposition 57. Voters have the power and the responsibility to keep innocent people safe in their homes, places of work and public spaces by rejecting Proposition 57. It is the first duty of a civilized society to protect its citizens from predators.
Pete Wilson was California governor from 1992 to 1998.