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California legislature hears pros and cons of statewide sentencing reform

On June 8, 2016, the public safety committees for both the California State Senate and the Assembly held an informational hearing on Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed ballot initiative, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 or “Proposition 57.” 

If passed, this initiative would make reforms to both juvenile and criminal sentencing. On the juvenile side, the initiative would repeal the ability of district attorneys (DAs) to charge youth directly in adult, criminal court — a process called “direct file”. Instead, the decision to prosecute youth as adults will return to the juvenile court judge. Proposition 57 will also shift the responsibility of proving a youth should or should not be charged as an adult from the youth to the prosecutor.

A mother whose son was prosecuted as an adult tearfully asks for support of Proposition 57

In the adult criminal justice system, the initiative would allow the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to develop an award system for those incarcerated in state prisons to earn “good time” credits, reducing sentences in return for good behavior and rehabilitative achievements. The initiative also allows people convicted of nonviolent offenses to become newly eligible for parole after serving the full sentence for their primary offense.

Members of the Senate and Assembly public safety committees heard testimony from a panel supporting Proposition 57, and one in opposition. The support panel included Elizabeth Calvin (Human Rights Watch), Mary Butler (Chief Probation Officers of California), Dionne Wilson (Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice), and Frankie Guzman (National Center for Youth Law).

Guzman, a co-author on a recent report issued by CJCJ, the National Center for Youth Law, and the W. Haywood Burns Institute on the practice of prosecuting youth as adults, cited findings from the publication. The data shows that prosecutors are increasingly charging youth in adult courts despite plummeting youth crime. Though California experienced a 55 percent drop in youth felony arrests, direct files increased 23 percent per capita from 2003 to 2014. These opposing trends suggest that there is no clear relationship between serious crime and the use of direct file.

“The decision to send a young person to the adult system is a serious one with long-term and negative consequences, “ said Guzman. “The decision should be made rarely and only after careful consideration by a judge…”

Frankie Guzman (National Center for Youth Law) testifies on the Proposition 57 proponents panel

The opponents of the ballot initiative primarily objected to reforms to the adult system, stating concerns that good time credits and earlier opportunities for parole would allow people who commit serious offenses to serve only a fraction of their original sentence. There was also some dispute over what qualifies as a nonviolent offense: the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) claims that people convicted of serious crimes, though not defined as “violent” by statute, would be eligible for release under the proposed measure. The CDAA erroneously asserts that past sentencing reduction measures for nonviolent offenses, specifically Public Safety Realignment and Proposition 47, caused increases in crime, and they predict Proposition 57 would do the same.

CJCJ and other researchers have repeatedly shown that crime has not increased as a result of reduced sentencing after both Realignment (learn more here) and Prop 47 (more here). Furthermore, it is important to note that the ballot initiative allows only for earlier eligibility for parole, not early release, and CDCR still has authority over how the earned credits system is enacted. In fact, the reforms in the proposed ballot initiative would adhere to a 2014 federal court order mandating that California create an earned credit system for people in prison for nonviolent offenses.

As Elizabeth Calvin stated at the hearing, “Virtually everyone who goes to prison will get out at some point. There are three ways they can return home: the same way they went in, worse off, or better.” Proposition 57 would allow for justice system reforms that incentivize rehabilitation over punitive, ineffective, and lengthy prison sentences, potentially creating more opportunities for incarcerated people to return to their communities less likely to reoffend.

Keywords: direct file, district attorney, Erica Webster, good time credits, judicial transfer, judicial waiver, parole, proposition 57, prosecution, Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, sentencing, youth crime

Posted in Blog, Proposition 57, Sentencing

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