Last November Californians voted for Proposition 57 with the promise that “nonviolent” inmates who “turn their lives around” in prison could earn early parole if they demonstrate they no longer pose a danger to the public.
Voters undoubtedly supported this proposition because they want their justice system to reflect both measurable accountability and the opportunity for meaningful rehabilitation. As Sacramento County district attorney, I support that concept wholeheartedly.
Still, before the vote, I voiced concerns about specific aspects of this measure as written and the process for release, which had yet to be written. Which prisoners would be considered nonviolent? What standards would be used to determine rehabilitation? Would district attorneys and victims have a meaningful role in the process? Could the public trust that those released are no longer a danger to the community?
Earlier this month, my office received the first list of inmates eligible for early release under Proposition 57. We also received the recently drafted administrative regulations on the process for early parole. It is now quite clear that my concerns were well-founded.
Among the 135 Sacramento County offenders eligible for parole is a gang member who received a 28-year sentence in 2012 after he shot up the car of a Washington couple visiting Sacramento for a wedding. He was convicted of two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, personal use of a firearm and committing his crimes for the benefit of the Sureno street gang. Two years earlier, he had been convicted of armed carjacking.
We believe he is not even eligible for release. Yet, his name is on our list, and he would be free almost 17 years earlier than his original sentence.
Another inmate on the list is up for parole consideration after serving about one-fourth of his 19-year sentence for felony assault with a glass bottle. Twice before, he had gone to prison for shooting into an inhabited house and robbery.
These alarming cases are not outliers. Crimes in this initial batch include child endangerment, felony assault, felons with firearms, recklessly evading peace officers and even crimes committed in prison. Many of the offenders have lengthy criminal histories.
The process for these parole decisions is equally troubling. Sentencing decisions are not made lightly. In most cases, the judge is provided substantial input from all parties, including victims. Probation departments conduct an exhaustive investigation into the offense and the defendant’s background. The sentencing hearing is conducted in open court.
Under Prop. 57, however, there is no public hearing. Instead, early release decisions will be based on a “paper” review. Prosecutors and victims are given only 30 days to provide written objections. For victims, this severely undercuts their right to be heard and to give confidential input on the inmate’s release. For prosecutors, this limits our ability to adequately investigate the details of the offense. Additionally, prosecutors have been told they may be denied access to records of the inmate’s behavior behind bars, which is critical to rehabilitation.
Shouldn’t the legitimate demand for greater transparency in law enforcement include information related to early release of convicted felons? I believe it should. Prosecutors should also have the same right to appeal an early parole decision that the inmates have, but that right has also been denied under the current regulations.
Proposition 57 promised rehabilitation and reduced recidivism without a negative impact on public safety. To ensure that, there must be transparency, accountability and public input.
Anne Marie Schubert is Sacramento County district attorney. She can be contacted at SchubertA@sacda.org.