Source: BY MARGARET MIMS, VERN WARNKE, JEFF DIRKSE AND ADAM GRAY, Fresno Bee
Early release of convicted criminals from the California state prison system should be the exception, not the expectation and certainly not the norm.
Unfortunately, too many of California’s policymakers — perhaps laboring under the misconception that having fewer people in prison best serves taxpayers — have embraced a philosophy that is returning violent criminals to our streets. Instead of saving taxpayers’ money, it is costing lives and putting enormous stress on law enforcement.
This stress results in additional costs to local jurisdictions — not the state. It results in putting citizens and officers in harm’s way. It means more crime, ranging from organized smash-and-grabs to drug deals to the theft of catalytic converters.
Sometimes, it results in homicides. The Wild West shootout that claimed six lives in Sacramento is an awful example, but not the only one. At least one of the shooters had been released early from prison. According to the Sacramento Bee, he was responsible for firing roughly 28 rounds during a pitched gun battle.
The three women killed in the shootout were all innocent bystanders, including two visitors to Sacramento — one was from Selma — and a homeless woman.
Such crimes terrify many residents. Despite an overwhelming police presence patrolling Sacramento’s streets, we wonder how long it will take people to feel safe walking around our state’s capitol after dark. That in itself is a tragedy.
Early releases from prison can be a useful tool for rehabilitation. Giving prisoners opportunities to reduce their sentences by adhering to the rules, taking classes, participating in counseling and doing jobs within the prison can help them turn around their lives.
But people aren’t sent to California’s prisons for a respite. They’re there because they have committed serious crimes. Due to past overcrowding, only those judged too dangerous to remain in society go to prison.
The state must take a more prudent approach to early release. It starts with sentencing. If a crime warrants a prison sentence, then that sentence — whether one year or 20 — should be the starting point. Once in prison, so-called “good service time” credits should only be awarded to those whose efforts to improve their lives are demonstrably sincere. Simply following the rules shouldn’t be good enough. If every sentence is reduced simply because an inmate follows the rules, then the sentence was never realistic in the first place.
Simply put, any kind of early release program must be more realistic. First, there must be enough funding for ongoing threat assessments. Then there must be proven programs and strategies — counseling, drug treatment, psychological therapies, education and skills training — that provide inmates the means to turn around their lives. The state cannot be allowed to do what it did starting 2011, when it simply passed the buck by shipping inmates to be housed in county jails.
And if a convicted felon earns early release but then re-offends, that person should be sent back to prison with absolutely no chance for early release the next time the state considers such a program. Convictions must have consequences.
Without clear rules and procedures, we are doomed to see more crime and more victims.
The current early release strategy should be suspended until the state reforms its goals and practices.
Every sheriff and legislator must have public safety as a top priority. The most effective means of ensuring the public’s safety is to remove criminals from society. When the state simply lets them go, well, the results were obvious in Sacramento on April 3.
Margaret Mims is the sheriff of Fresno County; Vern Warnke is the sheriff of Merced County; Jeff Dirkse is the sheriff of Stanislaus County; Adam Gray represents the 21st Assembly District, made up of Merced and part of Stanislaus counties.