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Craig Blas has a sentencing hearing scheduled for July 12 in Superior Court, according to court records. Stock photo
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California FocusOpinion

Elias: DAs demand transparency in early release system

There is nothing most California convicts want more than to be released before their sentence is up, even before they have earned enough good-conduct credits to qualify for early release.

Across California’s prison system, many inmates are getting their wish, thanks to a steady program of early releases for prisoners whose offenses are legally deemed “nonviolent,” even though that category can include things like human trafficking, rape of an unconscious person and domestic violence.

This is not parole, which must be approved by appointive panels operating independently of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

This is arbitrary action aimed at emptying the prison system as much as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration can get away with under the guise of reducing the risks of prisons becoming super-spreader sites for COVID-19.

While it’s true that convicts are often kept at close quarters with one another, both in cells and on exercise yards, masking and vaccines usually can prevent major outbreaks of the dangerous virus.

One lengthy investigation by CBS-TV concluded the early release process — conducted under emergency regulations — has been both dangerous and arbitrary, conducted entirely out of the public eye.

It has even seen the release of prisoners who were denied parole for substantial cause.

It’s unknown whether those rules will automatically expire if the public emergency Newsom declared in spring 2020 ends in February, as the governor has promised.

As long as 18 months ago, 41 elected district attorneys from around the state filed a petition with CDCR asking for repeal of those regulations and the unpublicized releases.

That was even before the release of convicted domestic abuser Smiley Martin, the main suspect in last April’s mass shooting in Sacramento, which killed six.

Martin, authorities have said, was able to get out after serving just four years of a 10-year term despite a record of prison fights with other convicts because his original offense was legally considered nonviolent, allowing him to earn good-conduct credits faster than formally violent criminals.

Riverside County D.A. Mike Hestrin, one of the signers of the district attorneys’ petition, wrote that “Releasing dangerous and violent felons into our communities by reducing their sentences by as much as 50 percent puts the public in danger… Victims and their families deserve to be heard on how the (emergency) regulations might affect them and public safety in general.”

But the D.A.s never filed a formal court petition.

They have now asked CDCR to explain how it decides which prisoners to release early — “especially those who have not engaged in rehabilitation programs… This needs to stop now. This is not reform. It is an anti-transparent experiment that is gambling with public safety.”

Added Yolo County D.A. Jeff Reisig, “The public has a right to know what these people are doing to rehabilitate themselves.”

Meanwhile, legislators bent on cutting down the prison population and possibly closing some of the state’s most remote penitentiaries also passed a law in 2019 allowing early release of many inmates who committed felonies while juveniles, but were convicted as adults.

The D.A.s always objected to that law, known as SB 1391, saying it could free hundreds of dangerous prisoners. One they sometimes cite is Adrian Gonzalez of Santa Cruz, convicted on the basis of video evidence of raping and killing an 8-year-old neighbor girl and dumping her body in a trash bag.

Because he was aged 15 years, 8 months at the time of his crime, he will be released in 2024, just nine years after the rape/murder. If he had been tried as an adult, he could have gotten a 100-year sentence.

Considering how much national Republicans used fear of crime in the November 2022 election, the Democrats who control Sacramento might want to revisit SB 1391, whose toll in repeat crimes is sure to rise in coming years as more onetime juvenile felons are released.

For Democrats might just want to assure their continued domination of California politics by doing something to prevent Republicans from making crime a major future issue here, as they have elsewhere.

    Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

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