Kern leaders question safety of state policies

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

• While scores of prisoners were diverted from an early release in Kern County, legislative, law enforcement and criminal justice officials continue to push back against erosion of public protections in California

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Kern County officials expressed relief over the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s last-minute decision against the release of 120 inmates in Bakersfield last week, but remained concerned about state policies they say have contributed to an increase in crime across the state.

CDCR had originally scheduled the early release of 400 inmates in California, with 120 scheduled to be released in Kern County. After Kern elected leaders reached out, CDCR Undersecretary Kathleen Allison responded that inmates would instead be redirected to their counties of origin.

However, stewards of public safety still voiced opposition to the multitude of initiatives coming from Sacramento that conservatives say prioritize criminal rights above those of victims in the public.

In 2011, Assembly Bill 109 triggered the release of more than 10,000 inmates to address overcrowding in prisons. However, with the closure of state institutions, inmates were transferred to county facilities — leaving the lesser offenders to be squeezed back out onto the streets.

In 2014, voters passed Proposition 47 (under the dubious title of “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”), which recategorized large classes of felonies as misdemeanors. Offenses — including firearm theft and possession of narcotics as well as date-rape drugs — which previously warranted incarceration for offenders instead resulted in only written citations.

In 2016, Proposition 57, the “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act,” was also approved by California voters. The legislation was meant to reduce jail time for nonviolent offenders, but officials say that the elimination of the justice system’s ability to leverage enhancements and aggregate charges meant that serious offenders were the unintended beneficiaries of the act.

In 2018 California voted to eliminate the bail bond system.

This year the state legislature will consider AB 392 — which strips law enforcement officials of split-second discretion for employing use of force.

Ridgecrest Police Chief Jed McLaughlin, who co-authored with Assemblyman Vince Fong an op-ed opposing AB 392 (www.news-ridgecrest.com/news/story.pl?id=0000010015), said that the city was at a 10-year low in violent crimes in 2014. Since then, “Part One” (serious) crimes have remained consistently higher.

Property crimes are also on the rise, said McLaughlin, since theft and drug possession are now considered too minor to qualify for incarceration.

“It used to be that jail was the only time people struggling with drug addiction could get the help they needed,” said McLaughlin.

“The Kern County jail has programs in place for education, rehabilitation, counseling, employment assistance and recovery.

“Now that’s gone. And here in Ridgecrest, we are very limited in where people can seek help for their addictions.”

McLaughlin also noted that when addictions grow overtime without intervention, those affected typically seek more desperate measures to feed their habits — particularly through theft and robbery.

“When there is no punishment or rehabilitation, all we can do in public safety is catch and cite people,” he said. “There is nothing to break the cycle. In fact, it gets worse.”

Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer recently released a statement following the prisoner release in Bakersfield. Her statement says that judicial interpretations of Prop 57 have dramatically shortened parole eligibility dates for even violent inmates.

What was originally packaged to voters as a relief for nonviolent offenders has become a windfall for predominantly the most violent, states the KCDA press release.

Zimmer explained that Prop 57 grants eligibility to all offenders after the completion of the full term for their “primary offense. However, the phrase “full term for the primary offense” has come to be interpreted as the underlying offense minus time-aggravating factors.

“The result is that truly nonviolent offenders see little to no relief from Prop 57, while offenders with a history of violence whose last offense happened to be nonviolent become eligible for early release,” states Zimmer.

“Prop 57 now offers a reprieve, not for those who abstain from violence, but for those who have a proclivity for it.

“As such, inmates who stand to benefit the most from the changes include offenders previously convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies and sentenced to life in prison.”

Under the new law, parole is granted after only a fraction of those sentences have been served.

“We see the result of Democrat-led policies like AB 109, which greatly weakened our criminal justice system, and a recent ballot initiative in action right now with the early release of this inmates,” said California Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove.

“I am worried this could lead to more crimes being committed. Quite frankly, these large-scale releases reflect the realities of the Democrats’ misleading legislation and ballot initiative.”

“The early release of prisoners is a clear example of poor liberal public policy that hurts the quality of life in Kern County,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong.

“Since the passage of AB 109 and Prop 57, the ruling party in Sacramento has done nothing to address the rise of crime that is taking over our communities.

“We see the strain on our law enforcement and the concern by local residents.

“It is past time for all Californians to call on the state legislature to undo these terrible laws.”

Story First Published: 2019-05-24