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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: Escape from California

They’re coming. A new law put into effect in late January will drastically reduce prison populations; sending large numbers of felons out into the general population.

One reason that prisoners will be released is that a court ruling deemed overcrowded prisons to be “cruel and unusual punishment.” Of course the other and perhaps more widely recognized reason for the inmate releases is that it will cut the cost of housing them, saving the state massive amounts of money.

While I am almost always in favor of finding ways to save money, I really question both the reasoning and methods behind making a change to our prison system in such a dramatic way. It’s almost like the movie, Escape from L.A., except that instead of being released in the empty, decrepit city of a dystopian future, these prisoners will be released into the California general population.

Even though state officials claim that only low-level felons will be released, we should not be so quick to let large numbers of them loose before their term is up. The state has already expended considerable resources to put criminals on trial and sentence them; releasing huge waves of felons now in such a hasty manner makes me question the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. Is just one cost-cutting measure capable of determining whether each individual prisoner should be released early?

The result of the new policy was felt just one day after it was implemented. A prisoner, Kevin Peterson, was released in Sacramento and then promptly arrested for an attempted rape when he assaulted a health care worker in front of a homeless shelter. He was released early because he had been serving time for a non-violent crime, but he had a prior conviction for assault.

There is a good chance that he would have committed crimes when released anyway, as he only had 16 days left at the end of his sentence. Even so, why then release thousands of people just like Peterson out into the public all at once. Sentencing a prisoner takes place during a trial, and there is most likely a very specific reason for the particular punishment. This law is essentially changing the decision of thousands of prior criminal cases.

The fact is that this man had a serious criminal history that should have warranted keeping him behind bars; he should not have been released into the general population. I think that it’s safe to assume that the justice system dropped the ball on this one.

Another major problem is that the bill itself seems to have some flaws that will produce unintended consequences. The law was intended to only apply to state prisons, but unfortunately many county prisons are releasing prisoners that were not supposed to be eligible for release. This is a result of a simple mistake, but could have major consequences.

The real problem with the new law is not that some prisoners will have reduced sentences, but that that there will now be numerous instances where serious mistakes are made. Mistakes happen even under normal circumstances, but now the potential for widespread errors has increased dramatically. If a large number of prisoners are accidentally released it will be time consuming and expensive to go back and re-incarcerate them. Meanwhile, the safety of law-abiding citizens will be put at risk.

There is a real need to reform our prison system, but this attempt to quickly cut costs is putting California citizens at increased risk. Years of mismanagement have put California in the financial situation that it is in now; hasty decisions that deal with the most important aspects of public safety are irresponsible.

California will have a terrible reputation if more released criminals commit crimes. It will have the same effect that will plague Toyota for the malfunctioning brakes in their cars. Even if the increase in crimes is small, citizens will begin feeling unsafe and unprotected by their government.

Maintaining law and order is vital to the future of California. Degradation in the criminal justice system will cost us financially and will decrease our quality of life. If California must release prisoners early, then it must at least implement serious penalties in dealing with crimes committed by early-released felons.

If a criminal who has been released early commits a crime, then that person must not only serve their new sentence, but have whatever time that is left over from their prior sentence added to their total jail time. If the amount of time that was remaining on the sentence is very short-like in the case of Kevin Peterson-then there should be a mandatory minimum sentence that these particular criminals should face.

The state government must find ways to cut costs; it really has no choice at this point. However, removing protections that ensure the quality of life for all citizens necessitate a great deal of care and deliberation. If this doesn’t happen then we will be living out a real life “Escape from California,” where the escapees are law-abiding citizens.

JARRETT STEPMAN is concerned about public safety and wants to keep bad people behind bars. You can send him your comments at jstepman@ucdavis.edu.


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