AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Seven years after California voters approved a ballot initiative ostensibly designed to give nonviolent offenders a shot at early release, a series of gruesome crimes committed by parolees released under the program have left many Golden State residents wondering how exactly the state’s Department of Corrections is determining who is fit to be released back into society. Yet despite public backlash, California Democrats have continued to vote against more transparency or reforms.
In 2016, Californians voted 64.4%-35.5% to approve Prop. 57, officially titled the California Parole for Nonviolent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements Initiative. Since the program took effect, more than 15,000 prisoners have been released early.
The language on the ballot initiative was seemingly very specific: It stated that Prop. 57 would increase “parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes and allow judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court.” Passage of the measure was hailed as a major victory for the far-left criminal justice “reform” movement.
Per the proposition, inmates earn credits for “rehabilitation, good behavior, and education milestones.” Once they pass a certain threshold, they qualify for early release.
But several problems with Prop. 57 quickly became apparent.
First, California voters and even state lawmakers have virtually no oversight on what metrics are actually used to qualify an inmate for early release. In some cases, the parole board would vote against a convict’s release, only for him to be automatically released via the program.
Liberal activists and supporters of the program in Sacramento have argued that allowing the public to see the Department of Corrections’ justification for releasing a prisoner early constitutes a violation of that prisoner’s privacy rights. But critics say the intense secrecy is a threat to public safety.
A number of high-profile cases have also made clear that it’s not just “non-violent” offenders who are being released under Prop. 57.
Last April, a gunman shot 18 people and killed six of them in Sacramento – the worst mass shooting in the city’s history. The subsequent investigation found the shooting was the result of a gang rivalry. The primary aggressor was 27-year-old Smiley Martin, who fired an automatic weapon into a crowd.
Martin has a prolific criminal record stretching back to 2013. His charges range from possessing illegal firearms to assault, robbery, giving false information to a peace officer, and a litany of other violent offenses. In 2018, Martin was sentenced to ten years for “domestic violence and assault.” He violently beat his girlfriend, whom he was also pressuring to engage in prostitution for his benefit.
Yet, less than five years into his sentence, Martin was freed on “good conduct” thanks to Prop 57.
Most shockingly, a year before his release, Martin was denied parole. In that hearing, the deputy district attorney testified, “Inmate Martin has committed several felony violations and clearly has little regard for human life and the law, which can be shown by his conduct in his prior felony convictions.”
Martin had even engaged in criminal behavior while in prison. Yet he somehow earned 508 days of “pre-sentencing credits” and enough “post-sentencing credits” to automatically be released from prison under the provisions of Prop. 57.
In February, another violent criminal was released early under Prop. 57 and went on to kill a police officer. Back in 2021, a Prop. 57 parolee invaded a 61-year-old woman’s home, killed her and her two dogs, and set fire to her house.
But just how did criminals serving time for violent offenses get paroled under a program designed for nonviolent offenders?
As it turns out, the fine print of Prop. 57 tells a far different story than the topline summary voters were given. For example, “violent crime” is defined as 23 specific violent offenses. Assault is listed as one of the 23 offenses, but only “with the intent to commit a specific felony.”
Criminals can use this as leverage over prosecutors (many of whom don’t want to enforce the law anyway) allowing them to “plea down” a violent crime to the specific “nonviolent” charge that would make them eligible for early release under Prop. 57.
The California Department of Corrections has also refused to provide clear data on the recidivism rates of parolees released under Prop. 57 or how “credits” toward release are earned.
Yet despite bipartisan condemnation, California Democrats have stubbornly refused to reform the program. Early this month, the state legislature voted down a bill that would require more transparency about what qualifies inmates for early release.
It seems that until Californians decide to make real changes in Sacramento, they can expect little relief from the crime plaguing their state.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.