Criminal Justice System Reform Needed

Joe Vinatieri
Mayor of Whittier

During the past several years, State legislative changes have made far ranging, fundamental alterations to the fabric of California’s criminal justice system…and some changes have been needed as not all crimes should be punished with jail sentences. These changes included AB 109 as well as Propositions 47 and 57. However, as time has passed, unintended consequences have arisen from these large scale changes…Whittier has become Ground Zero in the imperative for review and reform of this new system.

AB 109 was approved in 2011, transferring nearly 45,000 felons from the State prison system to local jails resulting in lower-level incarcerated criminals being released early. Then, Proposition 47, the so called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, was approved by California voters in 2014. It reclassified and downgraded a number of serious crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Similarly, Proposition 57, called The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, was just approved by voters in November 2016 and mandates the State release of up to 30,000 criminals convicted of “non-violent” felonies, including rape by intoxication, driveby shooting, human trafficking involving sex act with minors, assault with a deadly weapon, to name a few. Additionally, under Prop 57 repeat criminals are eligible for release after the same period of incarceration as first time offenders.

What is the upshot of this? California cities and counties are experiencing markedly increased crime rates. These legislative actions have created a situation where violent and career criminals are serving little to no prison time while low-level offenders commit multiple crimes with limited consequences. This increasing level of crime endangers the health and safety of our residents, law enforcement officers, and property. Negative impacts from these State legislative changes have been far reaching and the number of victims are increasing throughout California. The negative impacts of these laws were unintended when voters and legislators approved the laws which were instead intended to help lower the prison population in California prisons and appropriately rehabilitate “non-violent” offenders.

To make matters even worse, during the past two years we’ve seen officers shot, wounded and killed by veteran felons on the street in communities throughout California including Whittier, Downey, Lancaster, Palm Springs, San Diego, Stanislaus County, Modoc County and only recently, Sacramento County.

When taken together the increases in crime in our communities and reductions in arrests for many crimes plus violent attacks against law enforcement officers underscores the need for a call to action among California’s state and local leaders. Therefore, the City of Whittier has introduced a League of California Cities resolution as an important first step to initiate both a dialogue as well as actions to begin reforming California’s criminal justice system by requesting that League staff analyze the negative impacts of recent criminal law, identify necessary changes, and work with stakeholders to promote support for such advocacy efforts. The resolution also calls on the Governor, Legislature, cities, counties and other stakeholders to work together toward reforms.

This resolution will be considered by city representatives from throughout California at the League’s annual conference in Sacramento on September 15. It contains three specific reforms:

  1. Address Issues with AB 109 — The conference resolution promotes the amendment of appropriate sections of AB 109 to change the criteria justifying the release of “non-violent”, non-serious, non-sex offender inmates to include their total criminal and mental health history instead of only their last criminal conviction.
  1. Revise the Definition of Violent Crime — The resolution calls for the League to advocate to place into law for the purposes of Section 32 of Article I of the California Constitution, a violent offense includes crimes commonly understood to be violent.
  1. Data Sharing — The resolution requests the State improve the Smart Justice platform to provide effective statewide data sharing to allow state and local law enforcement agencies to rapidly and efficiently share offender information to assist in tracking and monitoring the activities of AB 109 and other offenders

It has been over five years since AB 109 became law. Good public policy always entails an after-the-fact review of wholesale legislative change to make sure that the change is meeting its original goals. However, review also ensures that any unintended consequences are determined and “fixed”.

It is clear that our people, our law enforcement officers, are suffering the consequences of these changes to our criminal justice system. As public officials, both state and local, our first priority is to public safety. It is imperative that we refocus our efforts on this fundamental responsibility.

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