Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, August 10, 2015


Page 7



Left’s Agenda on ‘Mass Incarceration’ Goes Beyond Release of Drug Offenders




(The writer is a retired homicide prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. He headed the Major Crimes Division for 10 years and served assistant district attorney for Special Operations for the last two years of District Attorney Steve Cooley’s administration.)

A recent column in the New Yorker’s on-line daily magazine reveals that the Left’s real agenda on what it calls the “mass incarceration problem” goes well beyond the push to release non-violent drug offenders from state and federal prisons. The author claims that the early release of drug offenders will not make a meaningful dent in the “problem,” and the only viable solution is shorter sentences for violent criminals.

This would be a real danger to public safety and would certainly result in skyrocketing crime rates. President Obama recently addressed the issue of “mass incarceration” at the annual convention of the NAACP. He told the audience that “mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” The president went on to say, “[T]he real reason our prison population is so high (is that) over the past few decades we locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before (and) for longer than ever before.” He concluded, “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime.”

Two days later at El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma, the president commuted the sentences of 46 inmates who were serving time for drug related offenses.

However, in the July 18, 2015, New Yorker online column, “The Real Answer to Mass Incarceration,” Yale lawyer Gilad Edelman, says that the president is wrong.

The early release of nonviolent drug offenders will not solve the problem, the author argues, and the only real solution is to lower the number of people locked up for violent crimes.

The growth of the prison population is not a result of the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, he points out, since they make up only a small percentage of the inmate population. The increase is the due to the lengthy sentences violent offenders are serving as a result of “three strikes” mandatory life sentences and “truth in sentencing” laws that require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The author goes on to say that mass incarceration will only be addressed when we consider releasing more violent criminals from their supposedly draconian life sentences. He concludes his column by stating, “We can end mass incarceration, or we can maintain (the) current policies towards violent crime, but we can’t do both.”

What Edelman is really saying is that government can meet its most important obligation to  its citizens, protecting their safety and security, or we can solve the “mass incarceration problem” by releasing violent prison inmates back into our communities—take your pick.

Clearly, the adoption of this policy in California would be a disaster for public safety. Because of Prop. 47 and AB 109 (realignment), California has already released from its prisons many of our nonviolent offenders. Those inmates are now serving their time in county jails, are in alternative sentencing programs or have been released back into the community. As of midyear 2013, 90 percent of inmates in the state prison system had a current or prior violent or serious felony conviction, and 16 percent were registered sex offenders, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Shorter sentences for violent criminals—robbers, rapists and killers—will not work in California. We tried that policy decades ago. The “determinate sentencing” law took effect with the passage of SB 42 on July 1, 1977. Until November 1978, when Prop. 7 was passed by the voters, the low term for second degree murder was five years in state prison (Prop. 7 increased the penalty for second degree murder to 15 years to life). SB 42 also gave inmates good time/work time credits of as much as 50 percent off their sentences.

During this window between the passage of SB 42 and advent of Prop. 7, killers who were convicted of second degree murder were sentenced to short stays in state prison. With good time/ work time credits they could be released in about three years.

Some of these convicted murderers killed again. I know. The defendant in my first capital case was sentenced to the low term of five years as part of a plea bargain in 1977, under SB 42. Within months of his release in 1980, he killed again. In 1981 he was convicted of the second murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

It took a second murder, another victim, and a tragedy for another family to incarcerate this killer for life.

To his credit, President Obama told the NAACP audience, “There are a lot of folks who belong in prison....Murderers, predators, rapists, gang leaders, drug kingpins....we need some of those folks behind bars. Our communities are safer, thanks to the brave police officers and hard-working prosecutors who put those violent criminals in jail.”

Not surprisingly the audience responded with applause. The president is right. One of the reasons that the crime rate has fallen so dramatically in the past few decades is because the Legislature has given police and prosecutors the tools to identify the most violent criminals and incarcerate them for lengthy sentences.

To me, this is protecting our citizens from crime. For some on the Left, this is “mass incarceration.”

Watch for the most liberal politicians and pundits, like the mayor of New York City, the talking heads on MSNBC or our own Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of the UCI School of Law to suggest that we must think about the merits of shorter prison terms for violent offenders to solve their “mass incarceration problem.”

I say let’s not.


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