Words matter, we often hear in this contentious political era when politicians frequently say things and then deny they meant what their words said.
Words also matter in the California penal code, where the label “violent” is not thrown around as much as it obviously should be.
That tag currently is not applied to many crimes most people with common sense know are violent. Some examples include assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder, elder and child abuse, arson, human trafficking, plus some forms of rape and forced sodomy.
All are obviously violent, until it comes to sentencing someone who has committed one of more of these crimes.
This has mattered a lot since the 2016 passage of Proposition 57, a pet project of then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who desperately wanted to clear thousands of convicts out of the state’s prison system.
His initiative, passed by a 64%-36% margin (almost 2-1), allows inmates whose crimes are not legally defined as violent to win early parole in exchange for good behavior and other achievements like earning college degrees.
No one knew in 2016 what the exact consequences would be. But police chiefs warned at the time that one result would be more violent crime.
So part of the Proposition 57 campaign was a commitment by state legislators to expand the list of crimes considered violent. But like many other things promised by politicians, that never happened.
One result was a gang shootout that killed six and left 12 persons injured last April in Sacramento.
It eventually emerged that one of the murder suspects in that case, bearing the rather ironic nickname “Smiley” Martin, had spent a mere four years in prison, despite a 10-year sentence for domestic violence and assault to commit great bodily injury — both considered “nonviolent” crimes under this state’s penal code — but not by many others.
Even though Prop. 57 had been the project of liberals in the Legislature, the April episode caught enough attention from leftist Attorney General Rob Bonta to get him interested in having the Legislature at last follow up on its 2016 pledge to expand the list of formally defined violent crimes.
Bonta, a former Democratic Assemblyman from Alameda who supported Prop. 57, told a reporter last fall, “Domestic violence, human trafficking, rape of an unconscious person — all of those should be discussed and potentially changed under whatever the appropriate means is for Prop. 57.
“I think if people are asked, ‘Is this a violent crime? Or is it not a violent crime?’ I think people will say, ‘It’s a violent crime,’ so I think those should be considered for change.”
So should some others, like assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder and forced sodomy, among others.
It is, in short, high time to make California law and rules of imprisonment line up with common sense.
For there’s a lot more to the crime problems Prop. 57 has caused than merely the Sacramento gunfight.
One report presented to Orange County supervisors about one year after the initiative passed claimed that one-fourth of the first 8,000 felons released back into that county under prison realignment furthered by 57 were convicted of another crime in the year after their discharge.
That rate just about matched prior recidivism, which some took to mean that both 57 and the reclassification of many crimes from felonies to misdemeanors under the previous Proposition 47 did not increase crime.
And yet … some crimes have risen sharply. In San Francisco, car burglaries and other property crimes rose by 667 cases per 100,000 population in just the first year of 57. There were similar increases in Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic saw a respite in rising crime rates, they’ve recently been going up more.
These realities are the reason the state’s Association of Deputy District Attorneys has called 57 a “full-fledged assault on public safety.”
The way to begin fixing that is for legislators now coming into a new session to start reclassifying obviously violent crimes as what they really are, and stop allowing early releases for many of the most dangerous convicts.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].