Just a week ago, California Attorney General Kamala Harris released an alarming report detailing how violent crime in California is on the rise, increasing 10 percent over the last year.
Violent crimes were up last year by about 15,000 to a high of 166,588. Homicides went up 9.7 percent, robberies 8.5 percent, aggravated assaults 8 percent. Rapes increased 36 percent!
It is in this environment that Governor Jerry Brown has placed before voters this November a ballot measure deceptively titled the "Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016" - when it might be more accurately dubbed the "Let Violent Criminals Out Of Prison Early Act of 2016."
The measure, now officially Proposition 57, purports to allow for early release only of those inmates who have committed "non-violent offenses," but is written in a way that even a spokesperson for the initiative says will only prevent early release for those who committed 23 specific violent crimes.
Here are just some of the supposedly "non-violent crimes" for which early release would be possible if this measure is passed:
• Rape by intoxication;
• Rape of an unconscious person;
• Human trafficking involving sex act with minors;
• Drive-by shootings;
• Assault with a deadly weapon;
• Taking a hostage;
• Domestic violence involving trauma;
• Possession of a bomb or weapon of mass destruction;
• Hate crime causing physical injury;
• Arson causing great bodily injury;
• Discharging a firearm on school grounds;
• Corporal injury to a child;
• And false imprisonment of an elderly person.
The list actually goes on and on.
In addition to significantly reducing the time a vast number of violent criminals would have to serve before being eligible for parole, the governor's measure actually allows bureaucrats at the Department of Corrections to give "time off for good behavior" to literally any inmate in state prison, including those convicted of the most heinous criminal acts, including first-degree murder.
I suppose another equally valid ballot title for the measure could be the "California Crime Victim Re-victimization Act," because the measure was purposely drafted to allow every prisoner currently serving time for the violent crimes listed previously (and more) to be eligible for early release based on the new guidelines. Which means that all of the victims of these terrible acts, who had some degree of certainty as to the disposition of their attackers, would all have to wonder if suddenly their attackers would be back on the streets - much sooner than they had been promised by the criminal justice system.
Brown's measure, in one broadly written provision, would overturn a number of previous tough-on-crime measures passed by California voters, including key provisions of Marsy's Law; Three Strike and You're Out - the Victims' Bill of Rights; the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act; and the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act.
Brown has so far spent over $5 million from a ballot measure advocacy committee he controls to put Prop 57 before the voters, and he still has over $20 million in that fund. He argues that these "reforms" are needed to address prison overcrowding, and also says that he very much regrets his support in 1977, as governor, for establishing determinative sentencing laws in California. These have led to the establishment of strict sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences, and enhanced sentences for certain crimes.
Brown also feels strongly that the current system provides no incentive for inmates to be exemplary while behind bars, and feels that with the carrot of reducing sentences that prison authorities can cause inmate behavior to change in a positive way, reducing recidivism.
A robust conversation about criminal justice reform is a good thing, and clearly some reforms are worthwhile to discuss, and even implement. However, in the case of this particularly dreadful ballot measure, its basic premise is a lie. Governor Brown wants to soften sentences and allow for early release of violent criminals - while trying to tell voters with a straight face that that is not what this measure actually does.
A final and disturbing fact: Attorney General (and U.S. Senate candidate) Kamala Harris is charged with writing an accurate title and summary for each ballot measure. As the state's top prosecutor, Harris knows full well what this measure does, but still placed before voters the sentence, "Allows parole consideration for persons convicted of nonviolent felonies...".
The question is whether general election voters, inundated with campaign messaging from not only a presidential election but from a boatload of other ballot measures, will understand this measure for what it actually is. Because if they just go by the ballot title and summary in front of them by Kamala Harris, thousands of very dangerous people will be back on the streets very, very soon.
- Jon Fleischman is the executive director of the California Republican Party.