A number of recent editorials in various publications and news stories, postings from law enforcement and community leaders, and postings of anecdotes from real California citizens have lamented the idea that California’s AB109, Prop 47 and Prop 57 “have not worked.” As a result, crime in California has increased, and the overall quality of life and culture of safety in our State has decreased. Well folks…..hold onto your britches….. I’ve got some news for you: The fact is that all three of these pieces of legislation HAVE worked. In fact, they have done exactly what they were intended to do. Anybody know what that is? Honestly (and with respect), I believe many of our community leaders either simply don’t know (because they never did), or they have forgotten what they were supposed to do. One more thing: Pundits on various sides of this whole issue/discussion speak to the presence or absence of responsibility of the current Jerry Brown Administration in allowing California to fall into this condition. The truth? The circumstances that precipitated this whole mess actually began in 1990 when George Deukmajian (R) was the Governor of California.
Here’s the rest of the story:
April 23, 1990 a class action lawsuit was filed by representatives of a number of California State Prison inmates. The suit alleged that mental health treatment in the California prisons was so poor that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit began to wind its way through court, and in June 1994 a judge found that the mental health treatment in California prisons was just as alleged, and that it did in fact violate the 8th Amendment. This lawsuit became known as the Coleman lawsuit.
A few years after Coleman was filed, on April 5, 2001 another class action lawsuit from within the California prison system was filed. Re-filed on August 20, 2001 with an amended complaint, this lawsuit, which became known as the Plata case, alleged that medical treatment in the California prisons was inadequate, also in violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Gray Davis (D) was the Governor at the time this lawsuit was filed.
As the Coleman and Plata lawsuits wound their separate ways through the California court system, there became a sense by the respective courts that the inadequate medical treatment and the inadequate mental health treatment alleged in the two cases was as a direct result of prison overcrowding. At the time, the California Prison system was operating at almost 190+% of its maximum capacity.
July 26, 2007, the courts combined the Coleman and Plata cases, and they became known thereafter as the “Coleman-Plata” case.
August 4, 2009, while Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) was Governor, the court issued an order for California to come up with a plan within 45 days to reduce the California prison population to 137.5% of its capacity. This meant that the State would have to figure out how to get 40,000 inmates out! A plan was submitted to the court on September 18, 2009, and on October 21, 2009 the court rejected the plan. The court then gave California until November 12, 2009 to come up with a new plan. The plan was submitted on November 12, the court eventually approved and accepted it, and it was entered into the court record as an order of the court on January 12, 2010. California had now been given a firm and clear order to get rid of 40,000 state prison inmates!
With the finalization of the order to reduce the prison population, the Schwarzenegger administration decided to appeal the court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that the court’s order was unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court looked at the case, they, on May 23, 2011, essentially said that California needed to go do what the lower court had told them to do in January 2010. The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court. It is important to note that by this time, Jerry Brown was now the Governor, and was only 5 months into his administration.
With the Coleman-Plata lawsuit having been in the courts in various forms for as long as 12 years (through the administrations of four previous Democrat and Republican Governors), and with the U.S. Supreme Court having issued a ruling on the case, the Jerry Brown administration was now left with the task of developing and implementing a plan to satisfy the court.
October 1, 2011, AB109 was passed into law after winding the legislative process and being signed by the Governor. Although the bill was called the “Public Safety Realignment Act,” its very specific intent was to significantly reduce the California prison population in order to meet the requirements of the court order…..PERIOD! It’s interesting to note the basic meaning of “realignment” in this legislation. In short, realignment essentially meant that responsibilities for prison inmates and parolees that had previously been the State’s would now be “realigned” and become the responsibility of the individual counties instead of the State. This meant that the counties, which were not equipped to keep long-term inmates like the prisons were, would have to come up with their own plans on how to deal with an increased jail population and how to deal with higher level criminals who would previously have gone to State prison. It was hoped that by 2014, it would result in the release of 25,000 inmates, and put California well on its way to compliance with the court order it was now operating under. Unfortunately, AB109 not only fell short of its goals by almost 10,000 inmates, the California prison population actually increased while the Coleman-Plata reduction of 40,000 inmates was being pursued. The court gave California an extension of two more years to reach the goal.
The impacts of AB109 have been widely and fairly accurately reported. It is in this reporting that we have seen the first round of failing to understand the real purpose of this piece of legislation. This had absolutely nothing to do with the efficiency of the State, saving money, efficient operations for counties, or anything else. This law was about nothing more then reducing the prison population to comply with a court order in a lawsuit that California lost!
As noted, AB109 did not do what California, which was currently operating under the Brown administration, needed it to do. There had to be another plan, and this awareness provided the genesis for the next step in the trifecta of debacle, Prop 47.
Prop 47 was pulled over as a con on the California voter. Entitled the “Safe Schools and Neighborhoods Act,” it really had no provisions whatsoever to make schools or neighborhoods safer. Relying on the fact that most voters won’t take the time to learn about all the propositions, and knowing that everybody has to want safe schools and neighborhoods, the authors (who represented the Governor) knew they simply had to get this passed in order to further reduce the prison population to be in compliance with the court order. All Prop 47 really did was to make the sentences for crimes that were previously felonies into misdemeanors. Again, the real purpose of this law: get more inmates out of State prison….PERIOD!! The voters passed Prop 47, and it became effective November 4, 2014. One of the noteworthy pieces of this new law was that it was retrospective (unlike AB109) in that it allowed for people who had already been sentenced for certain crimes to petition the court for resentencing based upon the new rules. Many in the law enforcement community viewed Prop 47 as nothing more than a “decriminalization of crime act” proposed for the sole purpose of reducing the prison population. Prop 47 would have expired November 4, 2017, but Governor Brown signed a different law that made it continue to be in effect until November 4, 2022.
Although a November 2105 study found that Prop 47 had reduced the California prison population by 13,000 inmates, with the ongoing ebb and flow of criminals going in and out of prison, there were still more that needed to be released, and the court-ordered 137.5% capacity of the prisons had to be able to be sustained. This circumstance then provided the basis for the final piece of the trifecta of debacle in the California criminal justice system; Prop 57.
Prop 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, is just like AB109 and Prop 47 in that its primary purpose is to further reduce the California prison population, and to help sustain it at the lower level. Prop 57 was also sold to the voters with a complex campaign of misinformation. It did two significant things when it became effective November 8, 2016; 1) Allowed for early release of all State prison inmates; and 2) Allowed for “non-violent” offenders in State prison to be eligible for release earlier. Conspicuously absent from the public information about this proposition during the campaign was specific info about what constitutes a “violent crime” in California. If the voter’s knew the real answer to this question, there is a good chance they may not have passed it…… but, they did. In doing both of these things, again, the ultimate goal was to reduce the California prison population.
Soooooooo……we can banter about and back and forth about all of these pieces of law, and their impacts. But as we moan and groan (with appropriate legitimacy), its important to understand there is a “rest of the story.” Unfortunately, when it comes to issues like this the attention span of the typical citizen is very short. In this case, that short attention span leads to an absence of awareness of what has happened and why it has happened and resulted in us being faced with what we are as Californians.
I have tried to be as factual as possible in this, but I can’t help adding a bit of editorial spin here and there. Regardless, I hope y’all now have a greater sense of…the rest of the story.