The California District Attorneys Association sent a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today saying that reducing criminal sentences to help balance the state’s budget will lead to rising crime rates.
The lengthy and strongly worded letter, signed by Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein, who heads the prosecutors group, and other prosecutors across the state, says they “strongly oppose” a bill that the state Legislature will vote on Thursday because “thousands of felons will go virtually unpunished and our local crime rates will inevitably rise.”
The letter also says that linking passage of the state’s budget package to the creation of a sentencing commission, which will implement new sentencing guidelines, “without full and complete public review and hearing is simply unacceptable.”
Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff, who is active in the statewide group, alleged that Schwarzenegger and state legislative leaders are “rushing to judgment” and said “we will see a lot of criminals who are now in state prison returning to local communities sooner than normal.”
Orloff said he understands that the state plans to release 27,000 prisoners early. State officials are “scrambling” to cut $1.2 billion in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s budget and “are not listening to anybody,” he said.
Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said the District Attorneys Association is misinformed and under the governor’s proposal “there will be no early release of prisoners.”
Instead, McLear said 27,000 prisoners will be given “alternative custody” arrangements.
He said criminal aliens will be deported and low-risk prisoners will be given home detention or house arrest.
McLear also noted that a federal court panel recently ordered the state to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons by up to 40,000 within two years because of what the panel called “woefully and constitutionally inadequate” health care.
McLear said the court-ordered release of 40,000 prisoners, which the state is appealing, and the plan to place 27,000 prisoners in “alternative custody” arrangements are “completely separate issues.”
But he said, “If we take no action now to reduce our prison population we will be in a much worse position.”
McLear said the state’s problem is it currently is housing twice as many prisoners as its prisons were designed to hold.
Orloff said saying that the planned release of prisoners is an “alternative custody” arrangement instead of an early release is “silly” because the important point is that the prisoners will no longer be in a prison or jail setting.
Orloff said he thinks the state “is not equipped to monitor” the inmates it plans to release.
The letter from the District Attorneys Association, which also was sent to state legislators, says the group feels “unease” about a proposal to commute the sentences of some criminal aliens, which it said would give them “preferential treatment over our own citizens.”
The prosecutors group said it’s also unhappy with a proposal to change some crimes that currently can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors to misdemeanors.
The letter says, “This plan minimizes the serious nature of several crimes, including receiving stolen property, petty theft with a prior conviction and check fraud.”
The prosecutors say that for those offenses they will lose the longer statute of limitations carried by felony crimes, the ability to obtain search warrants and the ability to evaluate and charge offenders based not only on their present offense but also upon consideration of whether they have prior serious or violent convictions.
In addition, the District Attorneys Association said there is a strong possibility that inmates who are currently serving prison sentences for those crimes, especially those with longer terms resulting from the state’s “Three Strikes” law, will file habeas corpus petitions raising equal protection claims.
Those individuals currently serving life sentences for such property crimes could be released from prison despite having multiple prior criminal convictions for such violent crimes as robbery, sexual assault and even murder, according to the prosecutors.