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The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, also known as Proposition 57, is California’s latest effort to reduce state prison overcrowding. The prison population is about 3 percent below the federal court’s mandated cap—but the search continues for a long-term solution. Prop 57 would reduce the number of inmates in three ways—by making nonviolent offenders eligible for early parole, giving prisoners more opportunities to earn early release credits through rehabilitation programs, and letting judges (instead of prosecutors) decide whether youths are tried as adults in court.
Nonviolent offenders would be eligible for parole after completing their primary sentence, which is the base time served for a felon’s main crime. Because of mandatory minimum sentences implemented under Gov. Jerry Brown back in 1977 (during his first stint in the office), these same prisoners often have additional sentences, called enhancements, tacked on. A prisoner could be serving a primary sentence for drug crimes, for example, but is serving additional time because of gang affiliation. Proposition 57 would allow nonviolent offenders to be reviewed by a parole board after their primary offense, and potentially be paroled early if their records show good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs.
The keyword here is “nonviolent.” Opponents have raised a lot of dust over which crimes this actually covers. Penal code 667.5 lists 23 felonies that are legally considered violent—including murder, rape and arson. But, the court’s classification may not always align with public opinion’s idea of violent or nonviolent.
“We’re really careful to classify the most violent people who are using actual violence, which usually includes some sort of weaponry or brutal attack,” said Bradley Corbett, a local defense lawyer. “If you’re talking on your cell phone and you’re driving on the freeway, and you run over and kill someone because you’re checking your phone, that’s considered vehicular manslaughter. Is that the kind of person you want categorized as a violent offender versus somebody who goes into a bank and points a gun at somebody’s head?”
Similar to the way manslaughter is broken down into violent and nonviolent, or voluntary and involuntary, respectively, rape can fall under different classifications, too. Statutory rape, rape by intoxication and rape of an unconscious person are not considered violent. This is what fuels the fire for opponents like San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who announced he would head the campaign against Proposition 57 at a July press conference.
“We’re here because every family deserves to feel safe in their homes, and every person deserves to feel confident that they can walk down the street at night,” Faulconer said. “And every victim of a crime deserves to see their assailant serve time behind bars.”
Faulconer and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, both Republicans, disagree on Prop 57.
“I understand and respect the concerns some have voiced about this public safety initiative,” Dumanis said in a statement. “Nothing is perfect and there are clearly some issues and language that need to be addressed. In supporting this measure, I’ve chosen to have a seat at the table and I’ll leverage that access to address law enforcement’s concerns. In fact, I met with the Secretary of the Department of Corrections to discuss the portions of the initiative that address the definition of a ‘nonviolent offense,’ who would be eligible for parole consideration and what criteria would be used to determine if parole is appropriate.”
Supporters say opponents fail to address the fact that prisoners will be released one day, regardless, and something needs to be done to prepare them for societal reintegration.
“A lot of the people who are against this just want to keep everybody locked up forever and have the key thrown away,” Corbett said. “When they read that someone is being let out early, they think they are getting some kind of break, and that’s really not the case. Clearly, imprisonment is only one part of the rehabilitation process of our criminal justice system.”
This is where the credits program comes into play. Under Prop 57, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) could award more early-release credits to inmates who have earned them by combatting addiction or learning a new trade.
“The vast majority of the people that would fall into this category of nonviolent offense are people who currently have determinate sentences, which are sentences that are a period of years, and then you walk out of prison,” said Human Rights Watch Senior Advocate Elizabeth Calvin. “It doesn’t matter what you do in prison. It doesn’t matter at the end of that time whether you have participated in a program. It doesn’t matter if you are still a danger. It’s just a guaranteed release.”
Supporters like Calvin hope the credits will work as incentives for the inmates and will also, inherently, reduce recidivism if people are better prepared to re-enter life outside of prison.
“The portion of the initiative that provides for incentive-based credits toward release is consistent with the commitment from many of us in law enforcement who believe that it’s imperative that we provide inmates with programming, counseling and other tools they need to turn their lives around and stop the revolving door to prison,” added Dumanis. Many of the proposition’s details will be hammered out by the CDCR’s regulations process, including whether violent offenders will be eligible for earning credits and how much their sentences could be reduced. If the proposition passes, the CDCR secretary would draft regulations based on input from stakeholders and then revise them based on public opinion. The CDCR secretary would finalize the regulations only if they would enhance public safety.
The piece of the proposition that garners the most consensus concerns juvenile offenders. Currently, prosecutors decide whether felony-committing youths (as young as 14) should be tried in adult or juvenile court. Prosecutors have been the decision-makers since 2000, but before that it was up to a judge. Prop 57 would revert the responsibility back to a judge. Corbett calls this a more just approach. “Prosecutors advocate punishment and locking these people up,” Corbett said. “They advocate for the victim. The judge is an unbiased, neutral arbitrator.”
If Prop 57 passes, it would decrease the number of youths tried as adults, simultaneously reducing the probability they’re sent to prison.
“If you go to a juvenile court, the judge is looking at different factors,” Corbett said. “The first step is not to lock them up in jail. It’s to talk to their parents, talk to their teachers, see what their grades are, find out why they’re getting in trouble at this age, and try to rehabilitate them.”
Because of the proposition’s complexities and discrepancies, many are still undecided about how they will vote come November, including the San Diego Police Officers Association. (San Diego Police Department Chief Shelley Zimmerman recently announced she is against the measure.)
In September, there were about 30,000 people in state prison who could be affected by the parole considerations of the measure, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. In a time when nearly 10 percent of the general budget is spent on state prisons, Proposition 57 is expected to save tens of millions of dollars for the state and a few million for the county, both annually.
“You don’t want to be too heavy handed or too lenient,” Corbett said. “But, quite frankly, budgets and money play into this. If there was an unlimited amount of money, we’d have even more police officers, we’d have tons of free drug rehab, we’d have tons of prisons with teachers, but money is at the heart of this. People might not be all that thrilled, but they’re not the ones at a desk with the pen and paper trying to work out the budget.”