Tipping the scales

Local law enforcement says Prop. 57 won’t lead to prisoner rehab

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, flanked at a news conference by Sheriff Kory Honea (left) and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien, says voters may dispute the “nonviolent” label on certain crimes in the scope of Prop. 57.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, flanked at a news conference by Sheriff Kory Honea (left) and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien, says voters may dispute the “nonviolent” label on certain crimes in the scope of Prop. 57.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

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When Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and the heads of local law enforcement agencies learned of a campaign slate mailer inferring their support of Proposition 57, they decided an intervention was in order.

Prop. 57 is officially on the Nov. 8 ballot as a constitutional amendment for criminal sentences, parole, and juvenile criminal proceedings and sentencing. Proponents, headed by Gov. Jerry Brown, call the initiative “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016.”

That title—and the mailer claiming that law enforcement supports Prop. 57—caused Ramsey and local police leaders to bristle.

So, Tuesday afternoon (Nov. 1), they held a news conference in Chico’s Old Municipal Building to distance themselves from that pseudo-endorsement and articulate their objections to Prop. 57. The group included Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea, Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien, Paradise Police Chief Gabriela Tazzari-Dineen and Gridley Police Chief Dean Price (who also serves Biggs). Ramsey said they also represented Chico State Police Chief John Feeney and Oroville Police Chief Bill LaGrone.

“Law enforcement throughout the state has been expressing its very strong opposition to this particular proposition,” Ramsey said. “It is not for public safety, and interestingly enough, not for the rehabilitation of the inmates that it is proposed for, because not one penny has been proposed in this proposition to do rehabilitative activity within our state prisons.”

The biggest bone of contention is public safety. Some 30,000 inmates could become eligible for parole early under Prop. 57, according to the state’s impartial analysis. Aided by two large posters headlined “NON VIOLENT CRIMES?!” listing 24 citations from the state penal code, Ramsey raised some offenses for which Prop. 57 would permit a parole board to consider early release.

The list included four rape charges and eight weapons charges (including explosives and acid), along with vehicular manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, three arson charges, three gang charges, two threats and residential burglary.

“‘Nonviolent’ and ‘serious’ offenders are terms of art within the penal code,” he said. “And when the governor and proponents of Proposition 57 say that we’re only talking about ‘nonviolent,’ it leaves an impression in the public’s mind that these are first-time felons that have merely tripped and are committing rather low-level crimes.”

Ramsey further objects to the de facto removal of sentencing power from judges, since time in prison for determinate sentences—those of certain length, versus an indeterminate life sentence—could be reduced under the Prop. 57 parole system in large measure by dismissing penalty enhancements (such as strikes for repeat offenses).

Honea expressed concern that a standing U.S. Supreme Court ruling against prison overcrowding could spur the release of higher-risk inmates. Ramsey elaborated that parole criteria have not been written. He shares the sheriff’s reservation about future policies that are “not passed by the Legislature, not passed by the voter, just passed by internal bureaucracy.”

Public defender Ron Reed does not share law enforcement’s concerns. A Chico attorney who contracts with Butte County, Reed supports Prop. 57, which he says changes the emphasis of incarceration from strictly punishment to punishment with rehabilitation.

“It’s not a device just to get people out of jail free,” he said by phone. “[It tells inmates], ‘Look, if you make some changes, and if you’re going to do things better, we’ll give you an incentive.’”

None of the crimes listed by Ramsey would keep an inmate permanently imprisoned, now or with Prop. 57. Reed said the savings from fewer prisoners—$50,000 a year apiece—would fund rehabilitative programs.

“Bottom line is, people get out,” Reed said. “Now, do you want them out after some programs and they’ve made some changes, or do you just want them to vegetate in prison and get out and be the same person?”

Reed, a public defender of 30 years, isn’t worried about bureaucracy: “I can tell you that parole boards and prison officials are about as hard-nosed and demanding of proof that [an inmate has] changed than anybody you could think about…. I have a lot of confidence in the prisons being able to evaluate people.”