Gov. Jerry Brown wants Californians to vote in November for the early release of prison inmates. Under the guise of promoting public safety and rehabilitation, Brown promises that early parole will be for only nonviolent inmates who “turn their lives around” in prison.
The governor’s practice of releasing violent and dangerous inmates early with little to no rehabilitation flies in the face of his promise of public safety. Countless early releases in Sacramento County alone are shocking, even to a career prosecutor.
Take for example Gregory Williams, who has spent the last 40 years in custody or on parole. In 2008, he was convicted of attempted bank robbery after he walked into a Bank of America and told a teller he would start shooting people if he didn’t get the money. He was sentenced to 16 years, partly because he had seven prior robbery convictions, many using a gun. He earned his prison sentence.
Two months ago, the state Parole Board granted him release after he served only half his sentence. While in prison, Williams did not participate in any programs, but the Parole Board found his conviction was nonviolent.
How could this happen?
The legal definition of “nonviolent” is a far cry from the common-sense meaning. Crimes such as domestic violence, terrorist threats, assault with a deadly weapon, residential burglary, battery with serious bodily injury and active participation in a street gang are all nonviolent under the law.
If you repeatedly kick someone in the head with steel-toed boots to the point of unconsciousness, your conviction is not considered a violent felony and you can get out early despite a long record of similar beatings. Just ask James Allen West, who did just that but was granted an early release from his nine-year sentence after the Parole Board decided he was not a threat to public safety.
There’s no evidence that he had any meaningful rehabilitation in prison. I wonder how his victims, including a 75-year-old woman, feel about his early release.
Who would believe that a well-known Norteño gang member with prior convictions for manslaughter and kidnapping would qualify for early release as a nonviolent offender? Or a convicted drug dealer who had an arsenal of weapons?
Californians deserve to know the truth about Brown’s initiative before deciding how to vote. Rehabilitation and public safety go hand in hand, but rehabilitation programs must be meaningful and truly address the inmate’s criminal thinking.
Nothing in this initiative defines or funds what rehabilitation must occur prior to early release. Sadly, history and practice demonstrate that dangerous people are being released early into our community with little to no effective rehabilitation. As these real-life examples illustrate, promises that only nonviolent offenders will be let go, or that the initiative will somehow promote public safety, defy common sense and logic.
Anne Marie Schubert is Sacramento County’s district attorney. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.