THE BLOG
06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Put Public Safety First

"Contrary to what opponents might claim there's no early release in this package." ~ August 31, 2009 statement of then Assembly Speaker Karen Bass

"There's no reason for any clear-thinking person to believe that this change in the law resulting in releases from correctional facilities around the state would not have an adverse impact on public safety. . ." ~ Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness

Kevin Paterson, a 22-year-old with a history of violence, was arrested in January for attempted rape on North C Street in Sacramento.

In the violent society in which we live, this incident by itself unfortunately would not be noteworthy except for the fact that Mr. Patterson had been released from jail less than 24 hours earlier for "good behavior" after serving only half of his sentence under an early release program passed by the California Legislature last year. A new study by the Associated Press has concluded that many criminals across the state have been released early since the program went into effect in late January even though they had been convicted for crimes such as assault, battery, corporal injury to a spouse, inflicting injury on a child, cruelty to a child, domestic violence, carrying loaded guns, attempting to take a gun from a police officer, resisting arrest and possession of a switchblade. The legislature needs to immediately fix this mess by modifying the program to ensure that the public is protected from predators who commit violent crimes.

The first priority of the state government should be to keep our citizens safe. The law passed by the legislature ignores this fundamental imperative. The early release program gave correctional facilities the authority to release prisoners early as long as they did not commit at least one of an enumerated list of violent crimes. However, the list was too narrowly drawn and failed to include crimes such as domestic violence, battery and carrying a concealed weapon. This was a mistake that already has resulted in the early release of inmates, like Mr. Patterson, who committed crimes we all would consider to be violent.

AP found that 8 percent of the 278 inmates released early under the new law in Orange County since late January had been convicted for assault, battery, corporal injury to a spouse, inflicting injury on a child, cruelty to a child, domestic violence, resisting arrest and possession of a switchblade. In a sample of San Bernardino County cases AP reviewed, 29 percent had been convicted of crimes considered violent or threatening, from domestic violence and weapons charges to stalking and injury to an elder. In Alameda County, 15 percent of the 87 inmates released early were convicted for crimes of violence such as carrying concealed or loaded guns, attempting to take a gun from a police officer and displaying a gun in a threatening manner.

As a criminal prosecutor, I and others who work in the criminal justice system share the frustration of victims of crime who feel like the state government has failed us again. While prison overcrowding is a serious problem, the legislature's "reform" package failed to address the most important cause of overcrowding -- fundamental sentencing reform. Instead of focusing on the root of the overcrowding problem, the legislature decided to cut costs and discard any concern for public safety by releasing unreformed violent criminals onto our streets.

Of course, one of the main factors driving the legislature's behavior is the budget mess. The early release program was designed to save the state millions of dollars at a time when the federal courts have declared that the current overcrowded system deprives prisoners of their constitutional rights. It is ironic that then-Speaker Bass, who wrongly proclaimed at the time the bill was passed that it was not an "early release" bill, recently felt compelled to give raises to certain legislative staffers even as the state's budget problems persist. It is time for the legislature to put public safety first.