In California, debate brews over criminal justice reform

In November, two conflicting law enforcement initiatives could appear together on the California ballot. Many groups in the state continue to push for more lenient punishments, but an increasingly visible coalition is calling for a return to strict anti-crime policies. 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
David Gilbert Delsied Jr. holds a photo of his late step-brother, Juan Carranza, who was killed in 2015, at a victims rights rally on April 9, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. Many who attended the rally argued for rollbacks on measures that shortened sentences for violent offenders.

Crime survivors and law enforcement leaders on Monday criticized a legal system they said has gone too far in reversing get-tough-on-crime policies of past decades as they stood before hundreds of photographs of crime victims as part of their annual Capitol rally.

They urged voters to support a ballot initiative that would roll back portions of measures passed in 2014 and 2016 that critics say impede investigations and free violent offenders too soon.

Crime Victims United of California President Nina Salarno Besselman said the rollbacks are needed "to restore balance to our criminal justice system."

On the opposite side, a reform group wants to further scale back what was once the nation's toughest law targeting repeat offenders.

Both initiatives could be before voters this November; backers are in the process of gathering the nearly 366,000 signatures needed to put each on the ballot. The tug of war comes amid get-tough rhetoric from the Trump administration and against a backdrop of court decisions that capped the state's prison population.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, on his way out of office, has warned against repealing the reduced criminal penalties. On Monday, he asked victims to "remember a life is not just vengeance, it's also redemption and forgiveness."

Protesters shouted and waved a poster of Stephon Clark as he spoke, angered that Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert hasn't decided if two Sacramento police officers should face criminal charges for fatally shooting the 22-year-old black man last month when they say they thought he had a gun. Investigators found only a cellphone.

Ms. Schubert was one of the early supporters of the proposed ballot measure to reinstate DNA collections for people convicted of certain property and drug crimes, allow prison sentences for serial thieves and bar the earlier release of criminals convicted of crimes including child sex trafficking, assault with a deadly weapon, attacking police, and raping an unconscious person.

She was one of three prosecutors honored by the crime victims' group on Monday.

Domestic violence survivor Jennifer Adkins said her attacker was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2015 on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, making terrorist threats, causing injury, and assaulting a police officer. Under recent legal changes his sentence was reduced to three years and he is due for release next year, she said.

"I fear for my life," she said.

El Dorado County Sheriff John D'Agostini said stories like hers show recent changes "have exacerbated that revolving door."

"The pendulum has swung far enough," he said. "It's time to get some reasonable fixes."

Critics call the proposed measure a step in the wrong direction.

"In many ways I see this initiative as a desire to revert back to the failed policies of the past," Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said. Her organization initiated a 2014 campaign reducing penalties for certain drug and property crimes.

She cites studies by public policy institutes and academic researchers in arguing that most lengthy prison sentences could be reduced by up to 25 percent without significantly increasing crime, a move that would free money for programs to further reduce criminal behavior.

Another proposed initiative would expand on recent changes by ending life sentences for inmates convicted for the third time of nonviolent crimes including burglaries and robberies under the state's three-strikes law. Offenders would be resentenced as second-strikers, a move that doubles their prison terms.

Supporters "feel like they were bamboozled" when corrections officials excluded nonviolent third strikers from parole consideration despite the 2016 reform measure, Mitch McDowell, founder of the nonprofit We the People, said. Statistics show those inmates are disproportionately black or mentally ill and are among the least likely to commit new crimes if they are released, said Stanford Three Strikes Project Director Michael Romano.

Violent crime in California increased about 4 percent from 2015 to 2016, while property crime dropped about 3 percent. Violent crime was up 10 percent and property crime was up 8 percent the previous year.

Two earlier measures affecting mostly lower level offenders have had no effect on violent crime and minimal effects on property crime, said University of California, Irvine, researcher Charis Kubrin. Her results, to be published in August by the academic journal Criminology & Public Policy, are consistent with unaffiliated research by the Public Policy Institute of California on the effects of earlier changes, though researchers say it's too soon to gage results from the 2016 initiative.

Supporters of tougher policies argue that penalties for property and drug crimes are now so minimal that many are never reported, skewing crime statistics.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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