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Steve Knight: Failed laws threaten communities

Posted: February 14, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 14, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Federal judges recently granted California two more years to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of the capacity that the 33 state’s prisons were built to hold, moving the deadline from June 2013 to February 2016.

This begs the question: How has California been fairing since 2009, when it was ordered to address prison overcrowding?

In response, Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 109 in 2011, called the “Public Safety Realignment Act,” which redefines the responsibility for supervising certain convicted felons from the state to the local level.

Interestingly, this statute states it was not enacted due to prison overcrowding, but to combat recidivism and to address California’s dire fiscal emergency — and it has resulted in huge risks to public safety.

Since then, the ill-conceived prison realignment law has shifted thousands of inmates from the state prison to the county jail and from the county jail to our streets, dramatically impacting our criminal justice system and innocent citizens.

AB 109 revises the punishments of “non-serious, non-violent, and non-sex-related” felony offenders with local jail time or even probation instead of prison.

But the state’s prisons, built to house the worst of the worst, and jails, meant to contain low-level offenders or those awaiting trial, are not synonymous.

The non-serious, non-violent, and non-sex-related clause is a huge loophole for hardened criminals to return to the streets at shockingly rapid rates.

Among the “non-serious” state prisoners shifted to local jails are those convicted of second violations including domestic violence, assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and even sex-offender parolees who tamper with their GPS devices.

Studies show that nearly 20 percent of former state prisoners who were realigned to serve probation sentences under Los Angeles County’s jurisdiction went unaccounted for and had outstanding arrest warrants.

County agencies struggle to force these hardened criminals to report to their probation officers or attend mandated mental health and substance abuse treatment programs that are supposed to result in lower recidivism rates.

It is easy to see why so many law enforcement officials have publicly criticized AB 109.

According to the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, crime statistics across California are considerably higher than the national figure, citing the fact that Californians have seen an alarming 9.7 percent upswing in serious property crimes within large- and medium-sized cities while the nationwide average dropped 0.8 percent.

“Proponents of realignment have emphasized that ‘violent offenders’ remain sentenced to state prison, with the implication that mere property offenses are not a major concern. They are.

“The crime of auto theft is a severe blow to persons of modest income,” the foundation states in a recent study.

“It is a ‘regressive’ crime that falls much harder on regular working folks than it does on the elitists who brush off property crime as a minor concern.”

While realignment was enacted to help meet federal court rulings that found inadequate medical and mental health care for prison inmates — as well as a way to reduce the state’s budget deficit — according to Los Angeles

County officials, introducing hardened criminals, who would have been in state prisons pre-AB 109, into already-crowded local jails means that some offenders are released after serving just 10 percent of their sentences.

Take, for example, the arrest of Sidney Jerome DeAvila, who disabled his ankle bracelet at least seven times but served little time behind bars.

In fact, DeAvila was sentenced 30 days in the San Joaquin County jail for tampering with his bracelet and failing to register as a sex offender, yet a judge ordered his release after one week due to overcrowding.

Within a week he was arrested for robbing, raping and killing his 76-year-old grandmother in her home. Sadly, it is easy to assume this case may have been contained, if not altogether prevented, pre-AB 109.

As a former police officer, I know first-hand that the protection of public safety must be the No. 1 issue. The awful results of AB 109 need to be acknowledged; legislators should come to the bargaining table and budget responsibly, addressing the dire fiscal emergency that forced AB 109 implementation and make realignment a thing of the past.

Fewer prisoners in our jails is a respectable goal, but until we change our broken system, I want fewer criminals on our streets.

Sen. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster, represents the 21st Senate District in the California Legislature, including communities in the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Victor valleys. He is also a Republican candidate for Congress in this year’s election.



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