Seven months after California reduced prison crowding to a level accepted by federal courts, lawmakers have sent Gov. Jerry Brown proposals that would create new felony crimes for which people could be locked up.
Three of those four proposals would put more people in prison. And, following a familiar political pattern, all invoke powerful public tragedies, including serial murders in Orange County and a rampage at UC Santa Barbara in which six people were killed.
FOR THE RECORD
Felony crime bills: In the Sept. 12 California section, an article about four proposals to create new felony crimes calling for prison or jail time referred to a rampage in which six people were killed. The 2014 shootings occurred in Isla Vista, a neighborhood near UC Santa Barbara, not at the university itself.
"It is usually the high-profile, high-emotion cases" that override concerns about prison crowding, said Lizzie Buchen, state coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a collection of groups whose acronym, CURB, reflects their opposition to prison and jail expansion.
"Legislators are willing to overlook the potential impact on the prison population when it is something as emotional as that," Buchen said.
Eight years ago, when officials sought to persuade judges that they were reducing prison crowding enough to avoid releasing inmates, the state Senate Committee on Public Safety began requiring that legislation be scrutinized for its impact on prisons.
Since February, the prison population has been within required limits, and legislative staff members now say that the state must only show it can keep crowding down.
"Prison overcrowding remains a major concern," said Larry Levin, a spokesman for the committee's chairwoman, Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), "but issues of overcrowding now are evolving into broader concerns about the length of sentences and purpose of incarceration."
Passage of new felonies does not mean prison crowding is no longer important, just that the new crimes are more so, said Tim Yaryan, a lobbyist for the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys. "If you can make your case, that's the way law should be made," he said
It is unclear whether Brown will allow the new felonies; his office declined to comment. But Brown recently vetoed bills that would have added three new misdemeanors, including vandalism of a redwood burl, to the books.
California's criminal code has 5,000 provisions, the governor noted in his veto message, "covering almost every conceivable form of human misbehavior."
The proposed new felonies include:
•SB 333, on "date rape" drugs. Before voters approved Proposition 47 last year, prosecutors could choose whether to charge a felony or misdemeanor against someone who possessed drugs used for date rape. Now, possession of those and many other drugs is a misdemeanor. This bill, by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), makes the offense a mandatory felony punishable by up to three years in county jail.
• SB 722, concerning GPS monitoring of sex offenders. California's decision to send parole violators to jail instead of prison led to a sharp rise in the number of sex offenders disabling their state-required GPS monitors — with little fear of being kept in already crowded jails. After the arrest of two monitored sex offenders in Orange County on suspicion of murdering four women, Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) proposed requiring fugitive sex offenders to spend up to three years in prison. This measure would not affect those required to wear GPS monitors for other reasons.
• AB 256, involving video tampering. This bill would make it a felony to alter or delete video evidence, with a punishment of up to five years in prison. Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), the measure's author, said he saw a need to protect citizens who capture "questionable police practices" on their cellphones.
• SB 347, on gun ownership. California already bars those who commit violent misdemeanor crimes from owning a firearm for 10 years. This bill would add theft of a gun or bringing ammunition onto school grounds to the list of misdemeanors that can block gun ownership. Violators would face up to three years in prison. In an announcement of the bill's passage, its author, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), referred to the UC Santa Barbara student killings. But a member of Jackson's staff subsequently acknowledged that nothing in the legislation would have prevented the attacker in that case from acquiring firearms.
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