California Victims Groups Blast Prison Inmate Releases

Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 02:31 PM

By Andrea Billups

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California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is releasing inmates sentenced to life in prison at a rate far higher than his predecessor in order to meet court-ordered limits on the inmate population.

The move is causing concerns among victim advocate groups about violent offenders returning to society.

"It's scary to see what is happening. This is terrifying," Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, told Newsmax.

In the three years since Brown's election in 2010, about 1,400 inmates serving life sentences have been released from state prisons. His predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, released 557 lifers during his six years in Sacramento.

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According to data from the state's Department of Corrections, 60 percent of inmates that have been released return to prison within three years.

Gov. Brown's releases are prompting concerns that those who have been paroled could be a danger to the public.

"If you speak to rank-and-file law enforcement officers having to deal with this every day, they are not happy," said Ward. "They are doing the best they can to keep an eye on these folks, but you've got thousands coming out now and it's just overwhelming everyone. It worries us that there isn't enough support to provide more cops on the street to handle the numbers of criminals coming back into our communities."

The prisoners are released from the state prison system and turned over to local authorities to serve their sentences in county or city jails.

But county jails also are overcrowded and not equipped to handle inmates serving long sentences, so violent offenders are being reclassified for early release on parole.

About 35,000 prisoners are serving life terms in the state, about a quarter of the total inmates in the prison system.

The recent wave of releases is due to the California Public Safety Realignment, known as AB 109, which passed in October 2011 as part of a budget bill as a way to deal with prison overcrowding.

But victim support groups say criminals are released without appropriate rehabilitation.

Harriet Salarno, who serves as board chairwoman of Crime Victims United of California, said she is "extremely concerned," adding that her group fought AB 109 from the beginning and continues to lobby against the releases.

"We warned them that this wasn't going to work but they passed it anyway," she said. "The counties are not prepared for this, and now the governor is seeing a lot of backlash from these counties as crime is escalating."

Ward said her group also argued for building more prisons instead of releasing more inmates.

"The Legislatures have refused to put money toward building prisons and as our state population increases, it will only make sense that our criminal element will as well," Ward said.

The releases have come after inmate-rights groups fought against what they saw as inhumane treatment as convicts were forced into cramped quarters to serve out long sentences. Lower courts agreed that it was a huge problem that evolved over decades, and their ruling was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cost for the first two years of implementing AB 109 has been $2 billion. In February, a three-judge panel gave Brown more time to finish the job, granting a two-year extension through February 2016 to reduce the prison population from 144 percent capacity — as it stands now — to 137.5 percent capacity.

Under the extension, the state may not ship more inmates to other states, a practice that has thus far seen about 8,900 moved to prisons elsewhere.

Salarno said her group, like others, tried offering solutions that would point toward true rehabilitation. They also suggested ideas to lawmakers such as allowing private companies to build new prisons to house the growing numbers of inmates and then lease those facilities back to the state.

No one wanted to listen to those plans or the frightened pleas of victims, she said.

"We don't want anyone treated cruelly or inhumanely," but the legislation, she says, "will not work."

Salarno said she is willing to work with lawmakers on a better solution, noting that even with capacity capped at 137.5 percent and the extension, more people are moving to the state and with that will come more crimes. That leaves California to face the same problem if new prisons are not built.

"I don't want new crimes," said Salarno, herself a victim after her daughter Catina Rose was murdered on a college campus in 1979, leading her to help found the victim advocacy nonprofit located in Auburn, Calif.

"I'm fighting to protect everyone so they won't have to go through what these victims went through."

Ward fears it will take tragic crimes to garner public outrage to reduce the releases.

"I think that we aren't going to see public outrage until we see even more heinous crimes happening," Ward said. "Historically [public anger] seems to come when people get killed. That's what it takes, unfortunately."

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