Nevada County DA signs petition challenging early release program
A state directive that will allow up to 73,000 prison inmates to be eligible for early release “endangers the public” and will lead to an increase in violent crime across California, warns Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell, who has joined with over 40 district attorneys statewide in signing a petition challenging the new law.
Newell said that the state’s directive represents a “sneaky” attempt by unelected officials to circumvent the authority of the state Legislature to decide on the issue.
The ruling was enacted earlier this month by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the agency responsible for the operation of the state’s prison system.
Newell said the new guidelines will increase violent crime in California, as inmates convicted of violent felonies will be eligible for release much earlier than they would otherwise have been.
“It’s going to be bad for us,” Newell said.
Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison released a statement in April outlining the new guidelines under which inmates would be eligible for early release.
The agency’s ruling has since been opposed by a majority of the members of the California District Attorney’s Association, of which Newell is a member. Anne Marie Schubert, district attorney for Sacramento County, sent a letter to Allison on May 13, with signatures from 40 other DA’s. The letter officially petitions the department to reverse the new guidelines.
Under the updated guidelines, 76,000 inmates are eligible to have their sentences shortened, with 63,000 of these having been convicted for violent offenses. Those 63,000 inmates are now eligible for good behavior credits that would reduce their sentences by one-third, replacing previous guidelines allowing sentences to be reduced by one-fifth for these inmates.
More than 10,000 other prisoners convicted of a second serious, but nonviolent offense, in accordance with California’s three-strikes system, could now see their sentences reduced by half under the new guidelines.
Allison invoked an emergency provision present in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2020 state budget as affirming the authority to enact the new guidelines. A corrections spokeperson said that the ruling would not only reduce overcrowding in state prisons, but would also encourage good behavior by offering inmates who earn behavioral credits the promise of an early release.
Newell dismissed the idea that California’s prisons are over capacity, asserting that this argument isn’t supported by the evidence.
“Let’s put that issue to bed — prisons aren’t overcrowded,” Newell said. He credited a judicial order issued during the governorship of Jerry Brown, as well as laws such as AB109 as actually having reduced California’s inmate population in recent years.
Even if corrections’ claims about the need to reduce the prison population had merit, any aim at reform should not come at the expense of public safety, Newell said. By reducing the sentences of some violent offenders by a third, the corrections department is endangering the communities, including Nevada County, into which these convicted felons will be released, he added.
“There are those people who have done something so heinous that the only thing to do is to lock them in prison. These people who have gone to prison for enhancements deserve it. So yeah, this is going to be bad for us.”
Newell also said that corrections doesn’t even have legitimate authority to issue the ruling in the first place.
To change sentencing guidelines to such a degree, it should have crafted a bill for the California State Legislature to consider, which would have also publicized the decision making process and given California voters a chance to make their wishes heard in Sacramento, Newell said.
Allison’s claim that her agency had emergency powers to change sentencing guidelines is entirely unsupported as well, and the secretary wasn’t able to articulate an emergency that justified the ruling, Newell added.
“It’s really just that they’re misusing a statue, either purposely misusing it for their own benefit, or they are actually just conniving and using it for their own benefit,” he said.
In addition to having sent the petition to the corrections department protesting the guidelines, the district attorney’s group is likely to file its petition in a state appellate court in an attempt to get the new law overturned, Newell said. The association has until May 30 to file such a request, he added.
Nevada County Public Defender Keri Klein released a statement in support of the updated sentencing standards, asserting that the corrections department should reward prisoners for good behavior and create a pathway to early release for qualifying inmates.
“Administrative rules like these, acknowledge that treatment, education and good behavior help a previously imprisoned person integrate back into their community safely,” she states.
She also noted that inmates who qualify under the guidelines won’t all be released immediately. Instead, Klein said that the standards allow for the gradual release of eligible inmates over time, in a way that appropriately values public safety.
“While (the guidelines) allow people to earn more credits, that does not mean that as soon as the rules are implemented 76,000 people are released from prison. It will be months, maybe even years, before anybody goes free under these new rules,” Klein said.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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