Over the years, Crime Victims United of California (CVUC) has informed you of various initiatives that may impact public safety in California. Just this past fall we notified you of two initiatives filed that would have provided additional rights to inmates. The initiatives, proposed by Families United for Prison Reform, were incredibly important to watch out for and CVUC is pleased to announce that both initiatives failed to garner the requisite number of signatures to place them on the ballot.
Fortunately, you will not see these proposals on the November 2008 ballot; however, you will see (and certainly hear about) a couple of other initiatives that will have significant impacts on public safety in the state. CVUC encourages you to become familiar with the initiatives in the coming months so that you can make informed decisions when they are before you for your consideration.
Proposition 5 – Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (“NORA” Initiative) OPPOSE
NORA is a comprehensive ballot initiative sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance – the authors of Proposition 36. CVUC is highly opposed to NORA, as are judges, law enforcement officials, and district attorneys across the state.
This initiative would require the State to expand and increase funding and oversight for individualized treatment and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent drug offenders and parolees; reduce criminal consequences of “nonviolent” drug offenses by mandating three-tiered probation with treatment and by providing for case dismissal and/or sealing of records after probation; limit the court’s authority to incarcerate offenders who violate probation or parole; shorten parole for most drug offenses, including sales, and for nonviolent property crimes; and more. It is important to note, the provisions of this initiative would not apply to just marijuana usage. Rather, the provisions of this initiative would be much broader, applying to users of methamphetamine and more. Furthermore, the provisions of the initiative do not provide for or allow funding to be used for drug testing of offenders – closing the door on law enforcement’s ability to assess an offender’s drug status as it may apply to the circumstances of various offenses.
While the specific changes in law are of great concern to CVUC, we are even more concerned with the basis for the initiative. NORA bases eligibility determinations solely on offenders’ official criminal records. It completely ignores their criminal profile, risks, intervention and treatment needs. Furthermore, we know all too well that many crimes included in an official record were the result of a plea bargain and may not reflect the true nature of the crime. As such, we could see a number of offenders who committed serious or violent crimes that were plea bargained to nonviolent, nonserious crimes afforded the benefits of the NORA act – avoiding accountability, judicial intervention, and meaningful rehabilitation.
Proposition 6 – Safe Neighborhoods Act SUPPORT
A year after bringing to California Jessica’s Law, the crackdown on sex offenders, State Senator George Runner (R-Antelope Valley) and Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R- Lancaster) have introduced a new initiative that would target gang members for tougher prosecution and dedicate nearly $1 billion annually to enforcement and intervention.
More specifically, some of the provisions of the initiative include:
§ Creating a nine-member Early Intervention and Rehabilitation Commission to evaluate and make recommendations on existing and future gang-reduction programs.
§ Increasing by 10 years the sentence given convicted felons caught with guns.
§ Requiring that convicted gang offenders register with local law enforcement each year for five years after conviction or their release from custody.
§ Allowing admission of sworn statements by gang crime witnesses who have died or who are unavailable to testify at the time of prosecution because of intimidation.
§ Increasing penalties for individuals who provide contraband to gang members in prison.
§ Authorizing the seizure of cars in which a gun is found that was used during the commission of a crime by the registered owner.
§ Prohibiting bail for illegal immigrants charged with violent gang crimes.
One of the most controversial aspects of the initiative, however, is that it would set aside $600 million in existing public safety funding and prevent it from being used for other programs unless it were approved by a three-fourths vote of the Legislature. In addition, it also adds $340 million to the funds dedicated to fight and prevent gangs. Some of the money would go towards providing electronic monitoring to allow police to watch and track gang members and would provide mentoring to gang members on parole.
Proposition 9 – Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008: Marsy’s Law SUPPORT
The Marsy’s Law initiative, introduced by CVUC Vice Chair Marcella Leach and CVUC Advisory Board Member LaWanda Hawkins, is an effort to provide victims with rights to justice and due process specifically as they relate to parole and parole hearings. Specifically, the initiative proposes to eliminate parole hearings in which there is no likelihood a murderer will be paroled, to provide that a convicted murderer can receive a parole hearing no more frequently than every three years, and to provide that a convicted murderer can be denied a follow-up parole hearing for as long as 15 years.
Inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole have committed heinous crimes such as attempted murder, crimes causing great bodily injury on another individual, murder, kidnapping, sex offenses, and more are eligible for parole pursuant to Penal Code § 3046. When the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) denies parole, the inmate’s next hearing is scheduled to reflect their decision, i.e., one year later if the denial is for one year.
Under this framework, conceivably, an inmate incarcerated for murder could have a parole hearing every year after serving either seven years or some minimum term established by law. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted that about 90% of all prisoners are found unsuitable for parole at the initial hearing, while 85% are found unsuitable at the second and subsequent hearings. This is a staggering finding that has implications on the backlog of parole hearings before BPH for inmates that the Board does not expect to grant parole to at a hearing in the following years because they have not met the Board’s criteria for parole.
Not only does the system incur hardship under this framework, victims and their families also must endure the constant threat and anguish in having to testify every year against an inmates’ release. This causes an emotional hardship for victims and their families, having to relive their heartache year after year.
CVUC is very concerned about parole and parole hearings. The issues of backlog and victim anguish year after year could be resolved if a more practical framework were in place that would limit the frequency of parole hearings for those individuals that are found unsuitable resulting in parole denial. Marsy’s Law is aimed at addressing this issue specifically and would provide immense relief for victims and their families.