By Senator Sharon Runner and Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully

May 16, 2011

In April, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 109, authorizing a shift in responsibility for incarceration and supervision of an estimated 45,000 felons from the state to the counties. The Governor characterizes his realignment as a policy that will save money by eliminating “a revolving door for lower level offenders and parole violators who are released within months.”

If the Governor’s plan were a transfer of truly short term offenders to counties with adequate jail capacity, it might merit support. Unfortunately, the massive shift of felons is not limited to offenders with months to serve. The Governor has activated a public safety time bomb, which will soon explode in communities throughout California.

The premise underlying the Governor’s prison realignment is that most convicted felons are sent to prison, and that more and more are low level offenders and drug addicts are occupying prison cells. This common perception is at odds with the record and simply not true.

In 2004, 805,000 reported felonies led to 225,000 felony convictions in California. Of these convictions, 41,000 led to prison sentences while another 177,000 resulted in probation and/or jail sentences. Only the most violent or habitual felons are sent to state prison. Under Governor Brown’s plan, many habitual felony offenders will be treated like misdemeanants and diverted to counties where they will face jail, alternative programs or release to the streets. AB 109 applies to felons sentenced to five, ten, or even 20 years and all would be eligible for immediate release. This group would include felons like Jose Gomez, a drug dealer with previous convictions who was sentenced in Los Angeles to 29 years for delivering 1,040 kilos of cocaine and possessing another 200 pounds of methamphetamine.

California’s incarceration rate per 100,000 residents is average among the states. On June 30, 2000 there were 162,000 adult inmates in the state prison system. Last month, the adult inmate population stood at 162,811. While there has been little actual growth in California’s inmate population since 2000, there have been more and more violent offenders and fewer and fewer “low level” offenders in state prison.

On June 30, 2000, California’s inmate population included 71,526 inmates committed for crimes against persons (murder, rape, robbery, etc.) and 45,439 for drug offenses. Ten years later, on June 30, 2010, the number of inmates committed for crimes against persons had increased to 94,413, while the number committed for drug offenses has declined to 26,657. Contrary to the common perception that our prisons are filled with low level drug offenders, there were actually more inmates committed for homicide (29,263) then all drug offenses combined (26,657).

So-called “nonviolent inmates” who are persistent enough to gain admission to state prison have an average of five-and often more than ten-prior felony convictions. Under Governor Brown’s realignment, these largely incorrigible felons will be diverted to counties with already insufficient jail capacity and could soon be released.

Among those diverted to counties will be felons like Dundell Wright, a career drug dealer who murdered Sacramento Police Officer Bill Beane Jr. in 1999. Prior to the murder, his many convictions would not have prevented him from qualifying for county supervision as a non-violent offender under the standard established in AB 109.

Realignment proponents operate under the belief that prisons do not work. They are convinced that all but the most violent criminals have social or educational deficiencies which can be best addressed at the local level. They are willing to risk the safety of millions of Californians in order to test their theory.

Governor Brown’s realignment policy rejects evidence that the rate of prison incarceration has a strong correlation with the rate of crime on the street. While a low prison population rate may be desirable, the public will pay a high price when crime almost inevitably increases.

This low incarceration-high crime formula prevailed during Governor Brown’s previous tenure. During each of the eight years that Brown served as governor (1975-1982), the FBI reported that California’s total crime index was higher than in any year before or since (1960-2009). Crime in the state reached its zenith in 1980 (Brown’s fifth year in office); in that year there were more murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and car thefts than in 2009 despite an increase of almost 14 million people in state population.

If Governor Brown has his way, California may soon return to the ill-fated public safety policies of his first tenure as Governor.

Jan Scully has served as the elected DA of Sacramento County for more than 16 years. As a public safety leader, Scully is committed to providing the highest level of protection for the citizens who live and work in our community.

Senator Sharon Runner, author of Jessica’s Law, represents the residents of the Seventeenth Senate District, which includes portions of Los Angeles, Ventura, Kern and San Bernardino Counties.