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New year may bring new ideas for inmate sentencing

Posted: December 31, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 31, 2013 2:00 a.m.

After more than a decade of trying to help reduce overcrowding in California prisons, local prosecutors are setting their sights in 2014 on finding more alternatives to incarceration, The Signal has found.

“We in the D.A.’s office are pursuing a number of initiatives to expand the alternate sentencing courts,” said Assistant District Attorney William Hodgman, who is in charge of line operations at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Alternate sentences keep the convicted out of jail or prison, usually by sending them to a program aimed at dealing with the cause of their criminal activity.

The District Attorney’s office is already “well under way” in its efforts to expand alternate sentencing courts and free up jail beds countywide, Hodgman said.

“We are initiating meetings with appropriate criminal justice system partners with regards to diversion for mentally ill offenders,” Hodgman said. Other diversion programs will be a high priority in 2014.

This past year, however, alternatives to incarceration has sometimes translated into plea deals for people charged locally with felonies ranging from murder and manslaughter to burglary and drug offenses.

Prison Overcrowding

Efforts to reduce prison overcrowding date back at least to 2000, when voters approved Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000.

It allows qualifying defendants convicted of non-violent drug possession offenses to receive a probationary sentence in lieu of prison time. Probation can be revoked if the person convicted fails to compete the program.

While the measure’s purpose was primarily humanitarian — to get non-violent drug offenders into programs that would reduce their drug dependency — one of its stated intents was “preserving jails and prison cells for serious and violent offenders,” according to the initiative itself.

Prosecutors still use Prop. 36 when they can. A case in point is the sentencing of 47-year-old pharmacy technician Debra Susan Ballinger, who lives in The Summit area of Valencia and was arrested in a drug raid in July.

Three months after her arrest, Ballinger was sentenced to a Prop. 36 drug-diversion program and to three years of formal probation, said District Attorney spokeswoman Shiara Dávila-Morales.

Four days after she was placed on probation, Ballinger was arrested and charged a second time at the same Valencia home for the same offense: possessing a controlled substance.

Ballinger is still out on probation and due for a “progress report” on Feb. 13, 2014, District Attorney spokesman Ricardo Santiago said Monday.


Although Prop. 36 offered prosecutors alternatives to incarceration, after a decade of its implementation state legislators still found it necessary to tackle the issue of prison overcrowding more aggressively.

In April 2011, responding to a court ruling that California must drastically reduce its overcrowded prison population by some 33,000 inmates over the next two years, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 109 — the public-safety realignment bill — which took effect Oct. 1, 2012.

AB 109 shifted responsibility for nonviolent convicted felons — typically referred to as “non-non-nons,” or those convicted of non-sexual, non-violent, non-serious crimes — and parolee supervision from the state prison system to the counties.

One particular “non-non-non” attracted consideration local attention this past year: the so-called “split-tongue bandit.”

Thomas Joseph Nichols, 25, of Canyon Country was arrested on charges of not just second-degree commercial burglary, but also of carrying a concealed weapon, violating conditions of parole, possessing methamphetamine, taking a car without the owner’s consent and receiving stolen property. He was arrested with a backpack containing a stolen cellphone, jewelry and a Phoenix .25-caliber pistol reportedly taken from a residence.

In January 2013, he pleaded no contest to just one count: driving a carwithout the owner’s permission. All other charges were dismissed.

“In admitting to the liability, he accepts the responsibility to pay back all the people for all his actions,” Deputy District Attorney Emily Cole told The Signal at sentencing.

Nichols was sentenced to six years in prison.


On April 29, James Samuel Buterbaugh, 25, of Bakersfield entered a plea of no contest to the charge of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. He received 16 months’ jail time.

Buterbaugh was at the wheel of a 2007 Honda Pilot about 4 a.m. Feb. 3 when the vehicle slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer stopped on the right shoulder of Interstate 5 just south of Templin Highway. His passenger, Meagan Elizabeth Carrier, 24, mother of one, was killed in the crash.

Buterbaugh was charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, possessing a “large capacity magazine” of ammunition and carrying a loaded handgun that was not registered, according to a copy of the criminal complaint filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and obtained by The Signal.

Prosecutors, however, pursued just the manslaughter charge in proceedings at San Fernando Superior Court.

Superior Court Judge Michael O’Gara, in accepting Buterbaugh’s plea deal, contrasted the 16-month jail sentence he received to the maximum penalty under state law of four years in prison.
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