To say 2016 has been a particularly deadly year for American law enforcement officers would be an understatement. At this writing we still have two months to go and 48 officers have been feloniously killed by gunfire. Four officers were murdered in California last month, and at least three of them died for the very same reason: People who should have been incarcerated were out on the streets. And it's only going to get worse if Gov. Jerry Brown and other leading proponents of prison reform get their way on Nov. 8.
For years now California's government has been coping with prison overcrowding and court rulings that require something to be done about it. But rather than building more prisons to keep more bad guys off the street, the state has been minimizing the severity of offenses, moving prisoners to county jails, and releasing some earlier than their sentences and common sense should allow.
As anyone who has lived in the Golden State can tell you, a lot of law in California is made via ballot proposition. It's not unusual to see 20 or more propositions on a California ballot. This year there are 17 ballot propositions, covering topics ranging from outlawing the death penalty to legalizing marijuana to mandating that porn actors wear condoms. But the one that should be of most concern to officers not just in California but nationwide is Prop 57, another attempt by the state to reduce its prison population through the early release of "non-violent" offenders.
Prop 57 is an attempt by California's prison reform proponents to double down on the disastrous bet they placed on Prop 47 two years ago. Prop 47 re-classified many drug and property crimes to misdemeanors, and it has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for many repeat offenders. The effect is that many people who have a long history of crime are free to commit more mayhem rather than being locked away. Because of Prop 47, violent crime in California rose 10% in 2015. And Las Vegas Metro Police Sheriff Joseph Lombardo has said California's release of some 14,000 prisoners under Prop 47 was the reason for an alarming rise in violent crime in the Las Vegas Valley. And as you can read in detail on page 22 of this issue, last month Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Sgt. Steve Owen and Palm Springs Police Officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny were killed in the same week in separate incidents reportedly by suspects with long and violent criminal records who many believe would have been in prison except for Prop 47.
The new proposed prisoner release law Prop 57 is an attempt by sentencing reform proponents to reduce the prison population through early parole. Proponents say only non-violent offenders will be considered for early release. Opponents point out that the proposed law uses the state's definition of violent crime. Here are some heinous acts that the state of California considers "non-violent" according to opponents of Prop 57: drive-by shooting, assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence, arson causing great bodily injury, lewd acts upon a child, and hostage taking. Worse, Prop 57 does not allow authorities to take into consideration the convict's priors or plea-bargain status when determining early release priority.
Some of the most outspoken opponents of Prop 57 are the families of the California officers killed in October. At a press conference, LASD Detective Tania Owen, widow of Sgt. Steve Owen, called out Gov. Jerry Brown for "deceiving" the public into believing Prop 57's early parole of prisoners would be restricted to non-violent offenders. Later in that same gathering Owen's brother played a voice message the fallen sergeant had left for him shortly before being killed. "And before I forget, tell all your friends: No on 57. If that passes, crime is going to skyrocket," Sgt. Owen said in the recording. Also appearing at the press conference was David Kling, a retired officer and father of Lesley Zerebny.
California officers and supporters of law enforcement can take Owen's advice and vote to defeat this proposed law. But those of you outside California are probably wondering why you should care.
Here's why. Like many misguided propositions in California, Prop 57 is likely to pass. Which means the Golden State will be releasing some bad people early. And criminals like the rest of the public are very mobile in today's America. Which means California's problems will soon become yours.