California’s New Parole Law Redefines “Violent” Crimes

California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 57 in November 2016. The measure gives the state parole board new powers to approve the early release of inmates whose offenses are not defined as “violent” under California law. Proposition 57 is one part of California’s extensive and ongoing work to bolster rehabilitation programs and to reduce the number of inmates in the state prison system.


However, since the launch of the Proposition 57 campaign, controversy has emerged over exactly who benefits from the initiative. Critics of Prop 57 have pointed to the case of Andrew Luster, who drugged and raped three women, videotaped the assaults, jumped a million-dollar bail, fled to Mexico, and was eventually convicted on 86 charges of sexual battery, poisoning, and the rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials have been quite concerned that the state’s short list of crimes defined as “violent” could allow dangerous criminals like Luster back on the street.


With the passage of Proposition 57, the controversy is now centered in Sacramento, where some lawmakers hope to add more crimes to the list of offenses defined by California law as “violent.” State Senator Patricia Bates has introduced a proposal to redefine more than twenty different crimes as violent felonies including inflicting injury on a child and assaulting a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon. “There are many of them that really need a second thought,” said Senator Bates. “If you put yourself in the position of a victim in any one of those crimes, you will say, ‘That was violent because that affected me physically and emotionally.'”


California corrections authorities are working on the precise details of Proposition 57. They have until October to expand programs that provide incentives to inmates for good behavior and to determine precisely which inmates will qualify for parole – and when. Governor Jerry Brown has already excluded all inmates convicted of sex crimes from eligibility for early parole whether or not their crimes are classified as violent.

Still, legislators, law officers, and prosecutors intend to expand the list of felonies considered violent. That’s because the governor’s sex offender exemptions from early parole eligibility can be challenged in court, while the violent felony list will still be the final determinant of who is and isn’t eligible for parole. The “violent felony list,” created in 1976, has been lengthened several times since then. It includes murder and the sexual abuse of a child, but some rape crimes and domestic violence crimes are not included on the list.


Lawmakers “didn’t want to add everything conceivable,” said San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who worked on the original violent crimes list more than forty years ago. Wagstaffe adds, “There was lot of give and take in Sacramento.” The most recent changes were in the year 2000, when voters approved Proposition 21, which made the violent crimes on the list “strikes” under California’s “three strikes” law. However, Prop 21 also made it more difficult to add crimes to the violent crimes list by requiring any change to be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the California State Legislature.


However, some kind of change is almost certain to happen in 2017. The violent crimes list “has taken on a whole new meaning under Prop. 57,” said Wagstaffe, who is the president of the California District Attorneys Association. “It has a whole new purpose,” Wagstaffe told the Los Angeles Times. “Now it will help determine whether you are eligible for early release, and that’s what is causing this new discussion.”

A bipartisan proposal offered by Assemblywomen Melissa Melendez , a Republican representing Lake Elsinore, and Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat representing San Diego, would include as violent crimes all forms of rape, sodomy, oral copulation, spousal rape, and sexual penetration committed against anyone who cannot consent, such as intoxicated persons or mentally ill persons.

The bill introduced by Senator Bates would also add to the violent crimes list the human trafficking of minors as well as certain rape crimes, and it would additionally reclassify solicitation of murder, vehicular manslaughter, and assault with a deadly weapon as violent crimes. Assemblyman Kevin Kiley of Roseville is also proposing to add child abduction for the purpose of prostitution, crimes targeting the elderly, and cruelty to animals to the violent crimes list.


“I think it is particularly important to do this now,” Assemblyman Kiley told the Los Angeles Times. Not everyone, however, believes that lengthening the state’s list of violent crimes is the best approach. Some groups are opposing any expansion of the list, or they are remaining neutral, saying that harsher criminal penalties inevitably have a disproportional impact on minority communities.

One group that’s remaining neutral is the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The Partnership says that while domestic violence offenders must face justice, lawmakers should take a closer look at other approaches to intervention. Jacquie Marroquin, speaking for the Partnership to End Domestic Violence, explained that victims of domestic violence don’t necessarily want their loved ones to face tougher penalties. Instead, they merely want their families united and “the abuse to stop.”

Proposition 57 was approved by California voters with 64.46 percent voting to approve the measure. Proponents of the measure spent $11.75 million. Opponents spent $641,326 fighting against the measure. The proposition also allows juvenile court judges to determine whether or not a juvenile age 14 or older should be prosecuted as an adult, repealing a provision which gave that authority exclusively to prosecutors.


If you have any questions or concerns regarding California law, or if you or someone you love is facing a criminal charge in this state, contact an experienced San Diego criminal defense attorney. California’s criminal justice system is in the middle of profound and unprecedented changes. What was once a felony may now be a misdemeanor. What was once a non-violent crime may now be a violent crime. If you’re accused of any crime, an experienced San Diego criminal defense attorney will be able to explain your legal rights and options – and advocate aggressively for justice on your behalf – during this period of upheaval and change.

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