Author, Expert & Speaker

Last November, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition (Prop) 57 by a margin of 31 percent. The object of Prop 57—The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016—is to move up parole consideration of nonviolent offenders who have served the full term of the sentence for their primary offense and who demonstrate that their release would not pose an unreasonable risk of violence to the community. The intended prison reform changes will lead to improved inmate behavior and a safer prison environment for inmates and staff. It will also give inmates skills and tools to be more productive members of society once they complete their incarceration and transition to supervised release.

I highlighted the proposition in my post entitled Rock “n” Roll Around the Props—November 8, 2016. In the post, I described Prop 57 as a potentially positive move for early parole for nonviolent criminals and for juvenile court trial procedures.

Voting yes on Prop 57 supported increasing parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes. A yes vote empowered trial judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court.

Here’s a summary of the ballot language voters considered:

Allows parole consideration for nonviolent felons. Authorizes sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior, and education. Provides [that the] juvenile court judge decides whether [a] juvenile will be prosecuted as [an] adult.

Fiscal Impact: Net state savings likely in the tens of millions of dollars annually, depending on implementation. Net county costs of likely a few million dollars annually.

How Does a Proposition Get Implemented?

Once a proposition passes, it needs to be fleshed out with detailed language tied to policy. Paperwork and forms are generated for the administration of new policies and procedures. At birth, a proposition is a skeleton of the actual implementable change chosen by the voters—it has no administrative legs. In the instance of Prop 57, the pragmatics of implementation are determined by what the proposition provides:

  • What policies and procedures will be used to evaluate parole consideration for nonviolent felons?
  • What policy will authorize sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior, and education?
  • What guidelines will set the policy for juvenile court judges to decide whether a juvenile will be prosecuted as an adult?

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is the state agency in charge of setting policy to implement Prop 57. Its staff of administrators and policy wonks will flesh out the bones of the proposition.

The CDCR says that Prop 57 “incentivizes inmates to take responsibility for their own rehabilitation with credit-earning opportunities for sustained good behavior, as well as in-prison program and activities participation.” The CDCR has made progress, but as can happen so often when converting proposition language—the legislative intent—to actual implementation, there remains a shortfall of the public’s expectations, especially if no one is watching.

The ACLU has identified three Prop 57 draft rules that fall short of the legislative intent:

  1. Excluding people serving life sentences from Nonviolent Parole Eligibility.

Prop. 57 promised to help people convicted of nonviolent crimes, but the proposed regulations prevent people sentenced to life under the Three Strikes law for nonviolent crimes from even being considered for parole.

  1. Excluding youth from enhanced credit earning.

Prop. 57 promised to correct overincarceration of young people and encourage rehabilitation programming. There is no justifiable reason to exclude people from enhanced credit earning based on their age or their eligibility for another program.

  1. Excluding Retroactive Application of Expanded Programming Credits.

People who have been dedicated to rehabilitation for years, or decades, should be rewarded for their hard work and commitment to self-improvement.

In my view, these three issues need to be corrected to implement Prop 57 as voters intended—to improve rehabilitation in our prisons and protect public safety.

Voters approved Prop 57 because they saw the value of rehabilitation and reintegration, particularly for young people. But as discussed, California prisons plan to undercut this voter-passed law and unnecessarily keep low-risk people in prison at a cost of $70,000 a year each—for no good reason at all.

Having the CDCR implement the will of the people feels like a stew of conflicting interests. The voters saw the merits linked to an incentivized rehabilitation, education, and release program for nonviolent inmates. The net result would be the reduction of the number of California prisoners that now hovers around 120,000.

The CDCR’s good intentions are superseded by its drive for survival—maintaining jobs within the prison system that depends on higher prison populations to swell the ranks of enforcement personnel. Inherent in keeping larger prison populations is the continuation of high-paying positions and, of course, power over low-risk people who desire to move on with their lives. For this reason, it is imperative that we take notice, speak up, and get involved with the process.

At this ACLU site, you can have a say by letting the CDCR know where it falls short in its sounds-good-but-misses-the-mark philosophy of incentivizing all inmates incarcerated for nonviolent crimes to benefit from the proposition.

Your thoughts are always welcome.

Image courtesy of 123rf

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