Archive for May, 2011

Supreme Court orders California to release tens of thousands of prison inmates

Posted on May 23, 2011. Filed under: Courts, Politics, Prisons |

The 5-4 decision represents one of the largest prison release orders in U.S. history. The court majority says overcrowding has caused ‘suffering and death.’ In a sharp dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warns ‘terrible things are sure to happen.’

By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau

8:56 AM PDT, May 23, 2011

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ordered California on Monday to release tens of thousands of its prisoners to relieve overcrowding, saying that “needless suffering and death” had resulted from putting too many inmates into facilities that cannot hold them in decent conditions.

It is one of the largest prison release orders in the nation’s history, and it sharply split the high court.

Justices upheld an order from a three-judge panel in California that called for releasing 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners. Since then, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. As a result, the total prison population is now about 32,000 more than the capacity limit set by the panel.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said California’s prisons had “fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements” because of overcrowding. As many as 200 prisoners may live in gymnasium, he said, and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet.

Kennedy insisted that the state had no choice but to release more prisoners. The justices, however, agreed that California officials should be given more time to make the needed reductions.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling “staggering” and “absurd.”

He said the high court had repeatedly overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for ordering the release of individual prisoners. Now, he said, the majority were ordering the release of “46,000 happy-go-lucky felons.” He added that “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.” Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with him.

In a separate dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the ruling conflicted with a federal law intended to limit the power of federal judges to order a release of prisoners.

State officials and lawyers for inmates differ over just how many prisoners will have to be released. In recent figures, the state said it had about 142,000 inmates behind bars, and the judges calculated the prison population would need to be reduced to about 110,000 to comply with constitutional standards.

Kennedy said the judges in California overseeing the prison-release order should “accord the state considerable latitude to find mechanisms and make plans” that are “consistent with the public safety.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said the court had “done the right thing” by addressing the “egregious and extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons.”

David Fathi, director of the ACLU national prison project, said “reducing the number of people in prison not only would save the state taxpayers half a billion annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities.”

Meanwhile, the court took no action on another California case in which a conservative group is challenging the state’s policy of granting in-state tuition at its colleges and universities to students who are illegal immigrants and have graduated from its high schools.

The justices said they would consider the appeal in a later private conference.

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Posted on May 17, 2011. Filed under: California State Budget, Crime, Politics |

By Senator Sharon Runner and Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully


May 16, 2011
In April, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 109, authorizing a shift in responsibility for incarceration and supervision of an estimated 45,000 felons from the state to the counties. The Governor characterizes his realignment as a policy that will save money by eliminating “a revolving door for lower level offenders and parole violators who are released within months.”If the Governor’s plan were a transfer of truly short term offenders to counties with adequate jail capacity, it might merit support. Unfortunately, the massive shift of felons is not limited to offenders with months to serve. The Governor has activated a public safety time bomb, which will soon explode in communities throughout California.

The premise underlying the Governor’s prison realignment is that most convicted felons are sent to prison, and that more and more are low level offenders and drug addicts are occupying prison cells. This common perception is at odds with the record and simply not true.

In 2004, 805,000 reported felonies led to 225,000 felony convictions in California. Of these convictions, 41,000 led to prison sentences while another 177,000 resulted in probation and/or jail sentences. Only the most violent or habitual felons are sent to state prison. Under Governor Brown’s plan, many habitual felony offenders will be treated like misdemeanants and diverted to counties where they will face jail, alternative programs or release to the streets. AB 109 applies to felons sentenced to five, ten, or even 20 years and all would be eligible for immediate release. This group would include felons like Jose Gomez, a drug dealer with previous convictions who was sentenced in Los Angeles to 29 years for delivering 1,040 kilos of cocaine and possessing another 200 pounds of methamphetamine.

California’s incarceration rate per 100,000 residents is average among the states. On June 30, 2000 there were 162,000 adult inmates in the state prison system. Last month, the adult inmate population stood at 162,811. While there has been little actual growth in California’s inmate population since 2000, there have been more and more violent offenders and fewer and fewer “low level” offenders in state prison.

On June 30, 2000, California’s inmate population included 71,526 inmates committed for crimes against persons (murder, rape, robbery, etc.) and 45,439 for drug offenses. Ten years later, on June 30, 2010, the number of inmates committed for crimes against persons had increased to 94,413, while the number committed for drug offenses has declined to 26,657. Contrary to the common perception that our prisons are filled with low level drug offenders, there were actually more inmates committed for homicide (29,263) then all drug offenses combined (26,657).

So-called “nonviolent inmates” who are persistent enough to gain admission to state prison have an average of five—and often more than ten—prior felony convictions. Under Governor Brown’s realignment, these largely incorrigible felons will be diverted to counties with already insufficient jail capacity and could soon be released.

Among those diverted to counties will be felons like Dundell Wright, a career drug dealer who murdered Sacramento Police Officer Bill Beane Jr. in 1999. Prior to the murder, his many convictions would not have prevented him from qualifying for county supervision as a non-violent offender under the standard established in AB 109.

Realignment proponents operate under the belief that prisons do not work. They are convinced that all but the most violent criminals have social or educational deficiencies which can be best addressed at the local level. They are willing to risk the safety of millions of Californians in order to test their theory.

Governor Brown’s realignment policy rejects evidence that the rate of prison incarceration has a strong correlation with the rate of crime on the street. While a low prison population rate may be desirable, the public will pay a high price when crime almost inevitably increases.

This low incarceration-high crime formula prevailed during Governor Brown’s previous tenure. During each of the eight years that Brown served as governor (1975-1982), the FBI reported that California’s total crime index was higher than in any year before or since (1960-2009). Crime in the state reached its zenith in 1980 (Brown’s fifth year in office); in that year there were more murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and car thefts than in 2009 despite an increase of almost 14 million people in state population.

If Governor Brown has his way, California may soon return to the ill-fated public safety policies of his first tenure as Governor.


NEWS ALERT State Budget Saving Measure to Keep Felons out of Prison Proves Deadly Non-Violent/Non-Serious Felon Arrested for Double Murder

Posted on May 16, 2011. Filed under: California State Budget, Crime, Parole, Politics |

CVAA has shared with you information about Non-Revocable Parole over the past few years.  CVAA fought against Non-Revocable Parole, along with most law enforcement associations and organizations across the State, arguing that is was dangerous and would risk public safety.  However, our concerns and objections fell on deaf ears.

Non-revocable parole passed as a Budget measure last year, very much like the current Budget cost savings plan AB 109 that will allow felons like Zachariah Timothy Lehnen to never see the inside of a prison.  In fact, this type of criminal may never see a jail cell as our counties are overburdened as it is and are currently trying to figure out what to do with their current criminal population.

In a meeting last week with Governor’s staff, CVAA was informed that AB 109 is intended to be implemented on July 1, 2011 because the State can no longer afford the burden of keeping it’s citizen’s safe.  Of course, the Governor did state in his signing message he will not implement AB 109 without adequate funding.  However, CVAA has been informed that the Governor is determined to see AB 109 implemented and one way or another.

As many of you are probably reading in your local newspapers, Counties and Cities are going broke.  Many law enforcement agencies are facing severe budget cutbacks, which equates to layoffs of law enforcement officers.  Though the Governor has stated that he will find funding for AB 109, it does not seem logical to shift State services to the Counties when Counties and Cities are struggling to keep their law enforcement agencies adequately staffed to deal with their current workload, let alone the thousands of extra felons that will be dumped on them by the State.

Below is an article that ran in LA Weekly.  AB 109 will make non-revocable parole go away – but will further risk the public’s safety by overburdening Counties and Cities with thousands of additional felons to manage.

Zachariah Timothy Lehnen, Accused in Double Murder of Culver City Pair, Could Have Been in Prison Until 2013 But Was Released Early

By Dennis Romero
published: Thu., May 12 2011 @ 4:53PM
Patrick Healy
Zackariah Timothy Lehmen

Updated after the jump: Some doubt this was an “early” release but still question the level of supervision the suspect had.

The transient accused of killing two people in Culver City this month was let out of prison late last year — with three years cut off his time — via a controversial early-release program.

Thirty-one-year-old Zachariah Lehnen’s parolee information sheet, obtained by the Weekly, shows that he could have remained in prison until November of 2013 but was let out under California’s “non-revocable parole” law, which went into effect last year as an attempt to save taxpayer money by letting low-level, nonviolent offenders out early.

The program has seen other early-release recipients allegedly commit violent acts, including the man accused in last year’s murder of Valley Village bride-to-be Cheree Ozmanhodzic . (In that case her fiancee actually arrived and came across the suspect as he was fleeing).

Lehnen was in prison for drug possession. And, as such, he would have been eligible for the early-release program. Culver City police Chief Chief Donald Pedersen, announcing the transient’s arrest, said he also had domestic violence on his record. That too, however, would not have prevented non-revocable parole.

Thumbnail image for culver city victims.JPG
Patrick Healy
Lucien Bergez and Erica Evelyn Escobar.

The bodies of 89-year-old Lucien Bergez, said to be a World War II veteran, and 27-year-old Erica Evelyn, were found in Bergez’s home near Washington Boulevard and Huron Avenue on May 3 after the elderly man’s maid called police. It happened barely six months after Lehnen’s release.

Lehnen, who reportedly was seen with the two at a 7-Eleven on Washington and apparently knew the victims, is charged with two counts of suspicion of murder with special circumstances — robbery and torture — that would make him eligible for the death penalty.

His parole sheet lists him as a Social Security-collecting, bipolar transient from Hollywood who had to undergo mandatory drug testing as part of his parole.

He was prohibited from drinking alcohol and was listed as in need of regular psychiatric evaluation.

Under the non-revocable parole program, however, police couldn’t automatically jail him with no bail if they suspected he was up to no good — as they would be able too with regular parolees.


[Added]: November 9, 2013 was listed as his “max discharge date,” which means authorities could have held him until then (but it appears unlikely in any case, although her certainly could have stayed a little longer). Some like former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would argue that his not an “early” release (see more below).


[Added No. 2]: A trusted expert called us and denied the notion that this was an “early” release, characterizing it more as an inevitable release that was done under non-revocable parole (which means you can’t be put back in prison for a technical violation) versus regular parole. The point of non-revocable parole is keep prisoners from going back behind bars for small time violations such as testing dirty for drugs versus committing a new crime. Thus, we save some money on the hotel bill.

In Lehnen’s case it’s possible (or not) that he had technical violations that would have put him back behind bars under regular parole.

In any case, his eligibility as a non-revocable parolee should be up for debate.

Some public safety advocates have still characterized the non-revocable parole program as constituting early releases, however.

Authorities picked up Lehnen at 1:30 a.m. on May 5 in a West Hollywood alley.

Public safety advocates, including the union that represents Los Angeles police , have been up in arms over the early-release program, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was all for it in the name of saving the red-ink plagued state some money, described as “no prison releases at all.”

Retired parole agent Caroline Aguirre  told the Weekly the Lehnen case once again proves that early release is a disaster.

“This policy is a dangerous,” she said. “It is a health and safety issue.”

We have a call into Culver City police requesting reaction from Chief Pedersen.

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Brown wants to cut prison population by a fifth

Posted on May 9, 2011. Filed under: California State Budget, Crime, Politics, Prisons |

by Debra J. Saunders

San Francisco Cronicle

Sunday, May 8, 2011

How small is the California prison population likely to become if Gov. Jerry Brown has his way? In three years, California’s prison population would be 20 percent smaller.

When we chatted on the phone on the issue last week (always an experience) Brown sounded more like his old self – a left-wing talk-show host of the 1990s rather than the tough-on-crime Oakland mayor and state attorney general who followed.

There are always two Jerry Browns. There’s the talk-show Brown who likened American incarceration rates to “absolute oppression.” A decade later, Attorney General Brown fought three federal judges who ordered California to release 37,000 to 58,000 inmates to relieve overcrowding, arguing that the judicial panel “does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed.”

Now as governor, he has signed a bill to transfer some 37,000 inmates – felons convicted of nonviolent, nonserious, non-sex crimes – to local jurisdictions over three years. The move should save boatloads of money, as jail beds cost about half the $50,000 annual tab per state prison inmate. “Low-level offenders” also could be diverted to community programs, parole or home detention. Critics call it a get-out-of-jail-free card.

For the 47,000 inmates serving fewer than 90 days last year (they violated parole or have served a chunk of their time in jail), the current system makes no sense. As Brown noted, “all these damn lawsuits” require expensive medical, dental and psych evaluations whenever inmates are admitted, even for short stays.

Brown also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a ruling “any day” that forces the state to release inmates to relieve overcrowding as per the three judges – an odd pronouncement from the state’s erstwhile lawyer. I think he’s wrong. Recent big bench decisions have steamrolled over federal judges’ intrusions into state justice policy.

As always happens, Brown is amazed that I don’t see that his plan is “conservative.” “This represents the best thinking of people in penology,” he explains – and an end to what he calls wasteful “$50,000 scholarships.”

On the short-timers, he is right, but he should have stopped there, and not attempted to throw all “low-level” felons to the counties as well. When Brown starts talking about incarceration rates in Europe and arguing that “local people” are more “in touch” with offenders, I think of San Francisco – the city that flew drug offenders to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to help them evade federal immigration authorities in 2008. I think about the 40 crimes – including felony domestic violence, assaulting a police officer, solicitation for murder and human trafficking – left out of an earlier version of the bill.

Brown notes that local law enforcement supports the plan. Of course they do. They’re starving for money. Brown promises that there will be “no realignment unless money follows it.” (He doesn’t have the money yet because his tax-extension proposal didn’t qualify for the June ballot, but he’s working on it. )

In the last five years, changes in the parole system have reduced the number of state prison inmates by 11,000 in five years. Criminal Justice Legal Foundation President Michael Rushford sees a link between California’s tough sentencing system and its low crime rate. He predicts that the state’s next crime report “is going to be a little higher,” and next year, “a lot higher.”

Maybe Rushford’s wrong. Maybe he’s right. The question is, to paraphrase not Brown but Dirty Harry: Do you feel lucky?

California’s prison record

173,479 All-time peak prison population (in 2006)

162,925 Total population as of April 2011

152,837 Total population serving in state

10,088 Total population housed out of state

47,000 Number of offenders who served sentences of 90 or fewer days last year

Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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