Are our cities safer with AB 109 and Prop 47? Officials weigh in
According to data collected by cities and counties throughout California, crime is generally up in most categories. Law enforcement agencies, government organizations, and citizens alike have felt the dramatic increase in crime and are beginning to question the drastic fluctuation, what caused it and how to stop what law enforcement officials from across the state are calling an increasing crisis.
“I’m sure the hundreds of violent crime victims and their families would agree that we are in crisis,” David Brown, Chief of Police for the City of Hemet said. “It’s a lethal formula when you release thousands of violent criminals in a county with a severely undersized jail system and understaffed police departments.”
While there is no way to completely explain a problem that was decades in the making, certain recently passed legislation, mandates and laws help to understand how California came to be in its current situation.
Why AB 109 – the Public Safety Realignment Act – was created
By 2011, California’s state prisons were designed to house about 85,000 incarcerated inmates. At the time, the state’s prison system housed nearly twice that number – with about 156,000 inmates – meaning they were operating at roughly 180 percent of its designed operating capacity.
That year, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Plata, a lawsuit filed due to the state’s overcrowding problems and what many called unhealthy conditions. The lawsuit included allegations that many prisoners had become unable to receive routine medical or mental health care based on the overcrowded conditions and violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights protecting them from cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s Three-Judge Panel’s order that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decrease California’s prisons population from roughly 156,000 inmates to 110,000 inmates.
To abide by the Federal Court’s order, in April 2011, the California Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown passed Assembly Bill 109, intended to cut the number of inmates in the state’s 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity by June 27, 2013.
The resulting Public Safety Realignment Act changed how the California state government deals with low-level felonies and effectively shifted responsibility for certain types of offenders from the state to the individual counties.
Under federal mandate, each county created a Community Corrections Partnership to oversee AB 109 realignment’s implementation, which began Oct. 1, 2011.
Understanding AB 109 – the Public Safety Realignment Act
Under AB 109 mandates, certain “low-level” felonies would require incarceration in county jails, as opposed to state prisons. This helped the state prison system meet its court-ordered reduction in population, but in doing so it strained an already overcrowded county jail system, not only in Riverside County but in many counties throughout the state.
Before realignment, people convicted of felonies with sentence terms longer than one year served the terms of their incarceration in state prison. Those individuals sentenced for misdemeanor crimes, which are usually terms of less than one year, served their incarceration in county jails.
Under the California Public Safety Realignment Act, all newly convicted, non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders – also known as the “three nons” or “N3” – without current, prior serious or violent offenses are mandated to serve their sentences in county jail instead of state prison.
AB 109 also mandated that instead of reporting to state parole officers – as they previously did upon release from state prison before AB 109 – these “N3” offenders are now being supervised by county probation officers.
AB 109 mandated more inmates into an already over-crowded jail population
When AB 109 passed in 2011, its purpose was to lower the over-crowded California State prison population. However, Riverside County was already dealing with its own overcrowding problems. Since 1993, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has been operating under Federal Court Order, requiring the release of inmates anytime any of Riverside County’s five jails exceed their own maximum capacity.
During the first 19-years after the Federal Court Order in 1993 and before AB 109 realignment, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department was forced to release 24,236 inmates early due to lack of jail bed capacity.
The number of releases during the first four years after AB 109 realignment surpassed the entire 19-year combined total by more than 4,000 additional releases forced by overcrowding. By 2015, the sheriff’s department was forced to release 28,742 inmates from custody early to stay in compliance.
AB 109 also mandated that if a state prison parolee commits a new crime in the same class of offenses they are already on parole for, they serve their violation term in a county jail. Before AB 109, the individual would have been sent back to state prison.
Because many N3 inmates are considered long-term and have been sentenced to multiple years of incarceration, long-term inmate population rapidly increased and the Sheriff had to begin the early release of inmates in January 2012.
Prop 47 – the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”
Proposition 47, was a referendum passed in November 2014. Supporters referred to the measure as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” In an effort to ease jail overcrowding caused by AB 109 realignment, California voters passed Prop 47 by an overwhelming majority, with nearly 60% voting for the proposition. Under new Prop 47 guidelines, some nonviolent offenses were re-categorized as misdemeanors rather than felonies, as they had previously been.
Prop 47 also drastically reduced the bail amounts and penalties levied for many crimes such as drug possession, possession of stolen property, commercial burglary, and many others. For example, after Prop 47, possession of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and Rohypnol – a drug often used to perpetrate date rape – became misdemeanors, rather than felonies. In theft cases, the determining amount to be considered a felony rose from $400 to $950.
Additionally, inmates already serving incarceration in prison who fell under the new N3 guidelines were entitled to re-sentencing. “The year 2015 was the year of early release,” Harriett Fox, a Northern California correctional officer wrote in a 2015 article for PoliceOne.com. “In October, some 6,000 prisoners were identified for early release into their communities as part of the federal government’s ‘retroactive sentencing reductions for nonviolent drug offenders.’”
In a 2015 Washington Post article, Shelley Zimmerman, police chief of San Diego, described Prop 47 as “a slap on the wrist the first time and the third time and the 30th time, so it’s a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card…we’re catching and releasing the same people over and over.” She and other police chiefs throughout California also expressed concern about the increasing phenomenon of “frequent flier” criminals – individuals who exploit Prop 47 to commit new crimes.
Sean Hadden, the City of Murrieta’s Police Chief agreed, saying, “Although those that authored and supported Prop. 47 state it is too early to equate the rising crime across California on Prop 47, there is little doubt in the law enforcement community that it is a big contributor.”
“In my 28 years in law enforcement, I have not seen anything contribute to the rise in crime – most notably, property crime – as Prop 47 has done,” Hadden said. “In Murrieta, we did no initially see any impact, but by February 2015, our property crimes spiked to over two times what it had averaged in previous years. This spiking continued through most of 2015.”
AB 109 and Prop 47, and their combined effect on Riverside County jails
Overall, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has seen an 18% decrease in the number of jail bookings. In spite of that fact, the number of inmates in custody based on AB 109 mandates has continued to rise. According to sheriff’s officials, the increase of AB 109 realignment inmates has effectively negated any anticipated relief from Prop 47.
The sheriff’s department’s five jails located throughout Riverside County currently have an inmate bed capacity of 3,914 and the departments’ jails are all currently operating at maximum capacity.
“We have been operating at maximum capacity since realignment began. Unfortunately, that is why we are still being forced to release people,” Riverside County Assistant Sheriff Jerry Gutierrez explained.
The lack of available bed space in the county’s jail system has only been exacerbated since the beginning of the AB 109 realignment. According to sheriff’s officials, the problem is only getting worse.
“Last year, the sheriff’s department had to release 3,286 inmates early due to overcrowding and lack of bed space,” Gutierrez explained. “So far this year, we have already had to release 1,617 inmates early.”
The most recent available statistics from April 2015, showed an all-time high of over 28% – or about 1,100 beds of their available 3,914 beds – which are now being occupied by long-term AB 109 Realignment inmates. Those 1,100 beds that were once available for county inmates waiting for trial or serving one year or less for misdemeanor crimes are now being used to house long-term Realignment inmates.
There are now almost 400 AB 109 Realignment inmates in custody who have been sentenced to three or more years, according to sheriff’s officials; including one Riverside County inmate who is serving 13 years in county jail. Before AB 109 alignment, those inmates would be serving the term of their incarceration in state prison.
Because many N3 inmates are considered long-term, the jail population for Riverside County has only increased, leading to a lack of available beds for inmates. When taking into consideration the continued population growth and overall size of Riverside County, the number of available beds is significantly inadequate, according to sheriff officials.
Hadden agreed, saying, “Prop. 47, AB 109, and the already overcrowded county jail system has created a ‘perfect storm,’ where criminals know they will not be held in county jail for any significant time.”
“Auto theft has more than doubled in comparison to previous years,” Hadden continued, “and suspects no longer cooperate with investigators because they know they will only stay in county jail for a few days.”
“AB 109, Prop. 47, and our overcrowded jails have created a revolving door for our criminals,” according to Hadden. “The only thing AB 109 and Prop. 47 have done is help reduce the state prison population, while placing a huge burden on the counties and municipalities.”
Riverside County forced to respond
to influx of long-term inmates and early releases
Post-Release Community Supervision – also known as PRCS – was established by AB 109 Public Safety Realignment legislation as a form of county supervision for inmates being released from state prison who were already serving prison terms for one of the newly designated N3 crimes.
AB 109 also established the ability for judges to impose “split sentencing” for people convicted of N3 felonies. Split sentences require a portion of the convicted individuals sentence be spent in county jail with the rest spent under supervision by the county probation department. The period of supervised probation after inmates who receive a split sentence is known as “Mandatory Supervision.”
To help deal with the early release of PRCS probationers requiring Mandatory Supervision, Riverside County public safety agencies formed multi-agency task forces, such as the Post-Release Accountability Teams – also known as P.A.C. Teams – to make sure that those people on Mandatory Supervision and PRCS are in compliance.
“In Murrieta, we started a Parole / Probation Compliance Team in November 2011 to monitor the parolees and probationers in our city,” Hadden explained. “We also partner with other law enforcement agencies in the county and have placed a detective on the Central P.A.C. Team”
“Although our Parole / Probation Compliance Team and Central P.A.C. Team do a good job of staying on top of our parolees and probationers, it is the partnership we have with our community that gives us an opportunity to stay in front of crime,” according to Hadden. “Almost daily, an alert citizen notices suspicious activity, calls the police department, and our officers are able to investigate and make an arrest prior to further crimes being committed. We foster this partnership through our involvement in the community and through our social media.”
The sheriff’s department has also continued to expand its “alternatives to incarceration programs.” The county offers full and part-time Work Release as well as full and part-time Supervised Electronic Release. Additionally, the county continues to contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for inmate fire camp beds. The sheriff’s department is also exploring housing inmates in other counties.
Rise in Crime Unique to California
Recently compiled crime data showed a dramatic crime increase in California during 2015 that did not correlate in other states. According to a May 11 press release from the California Police Chiefs Association, “The significant increase follows a year after Prop 47 resulted in statewide criminal justice reform that weakened sentences without requiring alternative rehabilitation for offenders.”
A recent report released by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department echoed the CPCA’s report, showing violent crime is up 6.3 percent in all categories and property crimes are up 2.2 percent in all categories.
While certain crime rates lowered dramatically in Riverside County, such as homicides, which dropped by 26.3 percent and burglaries, which dropped 23.2 percent, most other crimes were up. Violent crimes such as forcible rape rose 12.7 percent, robbery rose 3.2 percent and aggravated assaults were up 8.3 percent. Property crimes such as vehicle theft rose 14.1 percent and larceny rose 10.5 percent.
Riverside County is not alone in seeing an increase in crime across the board. Los Angeles has seen an 11 percent rise in property theft, San Francisco’s robberies have increased 23 percent and Sacramento has experienced a 25 percent increase in violent crimes including homicide, rape, robberies, and aggravated assaults. Some smaller California cities have experienced an even greater increase in crime, with some seeing as much as a 20-40 percent increase.
“These numbers are more than statistics. They represent victims who have suffered theft, robbery, assault, or any number of crimes,” according to Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, President of the CPCA. “Clearly, something unique is happening in California and it’s important we study this trend to understand exactly what is going on before more people get hurt.”
According to the CPCA, similar increases can be seen in comparisons of cities throughout California. Crime data reported by 311 municipal police departments from across the state showed a “startling rise in crime throughout California last year.” The CPCA called the fluctuations, “Far beyond normal.”
According to the CPCA, based on the crime data they collected, the increase in property-related crimes in the California cities that have already reported reflected “the largest year-over-year increase since at least 1960. The increase in violent crime showed the largest year-over-year increase since 1990.”
“The goal of the initiative was to fund additional substance abuse and mental health services with the savings from lowering incarcerations. However, the savings have not materialized as predicted,” according to the CPCA. “There are no requirements for offenders to attend services, and statewide access to substance abuse and mental health programs is not yet available.”
Additionally, under Prop 47 guidelines for drug-related crimes, when people now commit misdemeanor crimes that were once considered felonies, they know their jail time will be short and they can expect to be out of jail quickly. So, there is no incentive for these individuals to go into a rehabilitation program.
“To reduce sentences without having alternative services in place, and without requiring offenders to take part in rehabilitative programs, leaves law enforcement with very limited options in dealing with crime,” Chief Corney said. “As a result, what we have seen is repeat offenders committing multiple crimes because they know they aren’t going to be held accountable.”
CITIZENS AND LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS FEEL BIGGEST IMPACT
While there are still many who support the changes to California’s management of crimes and criminals, data collected from all over the state so far indicates the combined effects of the AB 109 Realignment and Prop 47 mandates and changes have caused an alarming increase in crime throughout the state.
“AB 109 impacted the county jails and county probation the most,” Hadden explained. “The county jails were not designed to house prisoners for long periods of time. They do not have the medical, recreational, and other required services long-term housing requires. Essentially, the State pushed their responsibilities onto the counties.”
“Prop 47 impacts the citizens the most,” Hadden said. “There are more victims and it is frustrating for them to discover the person that was arrested for stealing their vehicle or other property will be out of jail within a short time.”
Brown agreed with Hadden, saying, “It is our communities that have taken the brunt of the impact and we must now find ways to reduce and prevent crime with fewer resources.”
Many law enforcement officials throughout California agree those who have suffered the biggest impact of the changes are the crime victims and front-line law enforcement officers, who are forced to interact with the criminals released due to jail overcrowding, lowered sentence terms for those convicted of the newly classified misdemeanors that were once felonies, Post Release Community Supervision, and Mandatory Supervision.
“Far too many good people have been victimized unnecessarily as a result of poor policy,” Brown explained. “Cities in California that decide to make public safety a priority will thrive, those that don’t will be overrun. It’s that simple.”
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Trevor Montgomery spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg in an off-duty accident.
During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including the Robert Presley Detention Center, the Southwest Station in Temecula, the Hemet Station, and the Lake Elsinore Station, along with many other locations.
Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team, Personnel and Background Investigations and he finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator.
Trevor has been married for more than 26 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 12 – soon to be 13 – grandchildren.