The overwhelming grief felt by Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper following the brutal killing Monday of Officer Keith Boyer is understandable. But public officials need to be held accountable for false or misleading statements that are calculated to sway opinion on important policy matters, even if those comments come during times of great duress. And unfortunately, Piper misused the occasion of Boyer’s traumatic death to lash out at recent criminal justice reforms.
"We need to wake up,” he said. “Enough is enough. You’re passing these propositions, you’re creating these laws.... It’s not good for our community [and] it’s not good for our officers.”
The outburst against laws adopted by the Legislature and the voters might have been forgivable had alleged killer Michael C. Mejia been paroled under last November’s Proposition 57, or released earlier than planned because his felony was changed to a misdemeanor under 2014’s Proposition 47, or otherwise at large because of some supposed defect in AB 109, the 2011 “realignment” law that assigned more criminal justice responsibilities to counties.
But none of those things were true, nor was Mejia the beneficiary of “early release.” The parole process restored by Proposition 57 hasn’t even kicked in yet, and Mejia had served his full time in prison for car theft, a crime unaffected by Proposition 47. AB 109 — despite the assertions of law enforcement leaders, elected officials and far too many news outlets that ought to know better — neither mandates nor permits “early release” from prison or jail.
Californians have been hearing complaints about criminal justice reform for years from officials who are uncomfortable with changing their practices or taking on new responsibilities for dealing with dangerous offenders. Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell complained about reform measures in October, following the slaying of Sgt. Steve Owen in Lancaster — and again on Monday after Boyer’s death. Earlier on, the once-viable Republican Abel Maldonado centered his abortive election challenge to Gov. Jerry Brown on the provably false assertion that a host of killers had been allowed to commit their crimes because of AB 109. More generally, police have offered the specious assertion that a shift in public opinion away from tough-on-crime measures and toward more thoughtful outcome-oriented public safety policies have contributed to attacks on police officers.
Like Maldonado’s ill-chosen examples, Mejia had been not been released from prison any earlier than he would have been before any of the allegedly dangerous reforms. Under AB 109 he was supervised after prison not by state parole officers but by Los Angeles County probation officers. And when Mejia violated the terms of his probation — repeatedly — the county officers had several options for dealing with his violations, including sending him to jail for 10 days and seeking to revoke his supervised release.
Certainly something went wrong. After repeated punishment he was still free to allegedly commit at least one murder. So — were there shortcomings in his county supervision, as there so often are with state parole supervision? If so, that’s what should be targeted, criticized and fixed, not the underlying reform that empowers counties to better manage their criminal populations.
Although it wasn’t the case with Mejia, AB 109 does mandate that some criminals convicted of less-serious crimes do their time in county jail instead of state prison — and some county jails are at capacity, which requires sheriffs to make decisions about whom to release before their terms expire. So it is certainly possible that a sheriff could choose to release an AB 109 felon before his or her full term expires.
Yet few counties do release felons from jail early, preferring instead to release misdemeanor inmates before their full six-month terms in order to provide enough space for felons. Most California sheriffs, including McDonnell, keep AB 109 inmates for their full felony terms.
Criminal justice reform puts those sheriffs, along with chief probation officers, boards of supervisors and other county officials, in the driver’s seat. They now have the ability to manage jail populations by assessing and comparing the risk of accused and convicted offenders to flee or commit new crimes. They have a range of options for overseeing them on parole-like community supervision. They can measure the impact of rehabilitation programs and respond accordingly.
Results in some parts of California — San Diego, for example, where crime is at the lowest rate in years and continues to drop — are good. In Los Angeles County and its constituent cities, officials seem overwhelmed by the size of their caseload and the scope of their challenge. Their frustration is understandable. But that does not alter their duty to accurately and dispassionately lay out the facts.