Loud on the way in, quiet on the way out

Joshua Sebold
Staff Writer

    By now I’m assuming most of you have heard about a budget fix the state Legislature employed last year that essentially changed laws regarding prison sentences, allowing inmates to be released at a rate of about 40,000 more per year than previously.

    Most people don’t seem to realize that the 40,000 people being released each year are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the implications of that specific law, and local law enforcement experts anticipate it will soon be joined by a few siblings with similar implications.  

 But let’s start with what’s already in place.

    Your average person’s take on the early release law seems to be focused entirely on the people coming out of prison, but that’s only half of the picture, at best.

    The Legislature’s alteration of release laws led to a corresponding change in the game plans for deputies, detectives and district attorneys all over the state.

    Law enforcement officials aren’t blind to the fact that putting someone away for a non-violent theft charge will no longer keep that person in prison for as long as it would before.

    They’re changing their enforcement strategies right now because of it.

    They’re focusing less on the crimes with shortened sentences because they’re getting less bang for their buck than they were before.

    Your average person looks at this as a law that just impacts when people come out of prison, but it’s also changing who goes in.

    A cop walking down a street in today’s Golden State is less likely to arrest someone for public intoxication than he was before the new law was passed because the incentive system has changed.

    Similarly, district attorneys are less likely to spend time on cases that will now result in less-strict penalties.

    At the same time, someone facing one of those charges is now more likely to go to trial because the difference between the deal they’re getting to plead and the punishment they get if convicted is shrinking.

    Over the years, large legal trends like the war on drugs, DUI enforcement or Megan’s Law have launched in a very public way.

    The difference with this change is that the law is being enforced differently but not in a way that is obvious to the public.

    For instance, the Legislature didn’t publicly vote to make meth possession less onerous than before, but in essence the incentives created by making the punishment for that crime smaller has that same effect without announcing it to the public in so many words.

    The second piece of this legal system shakeup is the anticipation by local law enforcement agencies that this law will not be an only child for very long.

    At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, the heads of the probation and sheriff’s departments predicted that upcoming changes by the Legislature will send more prison inmates to county jails, putting the burden of incarceration on counties instead of the state.

    This will also shift priorities, leading county jails to put the local drunks and punks on electronic surveillance programs to clear out room for more serious offenders.

    At that meeting, the sheriff and the probation director added that there was a significant chance that the state would also allow counties whose jails were already full to send prisoners to places like Plumas.

    All of these changes do the same things: They shift priorities up the ladder, giving less incentive for cops around the state to arrest people for crimes that carry a sentence of less than three years and less reason for district attorneys to prosecute those crimes.

    California created many of these laws in a very public fashion, but on the way out they are on the verge of fading back into half enforcement without making a sound.

    It’s another classic example of indecision making our decisions for us in this state.

    Instead of publicly choosing which laws to enforce and what programs to fund, we’re once again watching as the interactions of disjointed systems of incentives choose for us.

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