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Milt Bernstein: Smyth dodges inmate problem

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Posted: September 2, 2009 9:01 p.m.
Updated: September 3, 2009 4:55 a.m.

I have just received an e-mail from Assemblyman Cameron Smyth in which he decries the decision by a panel of judges to release 40,000 inmates within two years to resolve prison overcrowding. In this e-mail, he tries to generate fear in the minds and hearts of his constituents instead of explaining the problem and even asking for suggestions as to how to resolve this situation.

The following is the text of Smyth's e-mail:

"Last week, a panel of three unelected judges ordered California to release more than 40,000 inmates from our state prisons before they have served their time. This ill-conceived proposal presents a very real danger and a threat to our communities. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of those released would end up here in Los Angeles County. Keeping criminals behind bars and requiring them to serve their sentences deters future criminal activity and preserves the safety of California families.

In its order, the three-judge panel suggested we can reduce the inmate population without releasing inmates by giving prisoners credit for completing rehabilitation programs and not incarcerating parolees for technical parole violations. What that means is that criminals, who essentially receive day-for-day credit for time served already, would be put back on our streets even earlier. It would also make it more difficult to put them behind bars for violating the terms of their parole. While these ideas may not technically be "early release," they function the same way, and are just as bad of an idea.

It's relatively easy for these judges to tell the state to release 40,000 inmates, because the judges only have to deal with the idea of that number. It would be a very different story if they actually had to identify the inmates who should be released before issuing such an order. Where would they start?

There are roughly 160,000 male inmates in California prisons. More than half have been found guilty of the most violent crimes - homicide, robbery, assault, rape and kidnapping. Presumably these judges aren't advocating for the release of these serious offenders, so they would be left with fewer than 80,000 inmates from which to choose. Of those, just over 30,000 have committed crimes against property ranging from burglary and larceny to identity theft and fraud. I don't think I'm alone in my belief that our communities would be less safe with identity thieves and burglars back on the streets.

A similar number of prisoners (about 31,000) are in prison for drug offenses, and most of them are drug dealers. Despite quite a bit of grandstanding to the contrary, the fact is that fewer than 300 are currently serving time for marijuana possession or a related charge. It makes no sense to allow drug dealers to be released early into the communities that they have tried to destroy by pushing drugs on our street corners and in our schools.

I would like to see which inmates the three-judge panel would recommend for early release. I think they'd have a difficult time coming up with 40,000 inmates who Californians would want returning to their communities. Maybe those judges would feel comfortable with a convicted drug dealer or identity thief moving in next door before they have served their sentence, but I wouldn't, and I don't believe my constituents would either.

I support the Governor and Attorney General's effort to appeal this decision, and hope to see it overturned in the near future. We certainly need to evaluate how our prisons are being run and explore ways to make our corrections system more efficient, but releasing a quarter of our prison population back into the community is not an appropriate first step."

The following is my response:

Assemblyman Smyth,

The decision by the judges was the result of a study conducted over at least two years. The problem was, and is, the result of the policies of the state of California and the legislature. Apparently, until the overcrowding problem was brought to public attention our legislature, of which you are a part, could not, would not or did not consider the situation as one of concern and completely ignored it.

Now the legislature has to solve this problem within two years. It is my suggestion that instead of trying to pass the blame to the judges it would be more prudent if you and the other members of the legislature work towards solving this problem, preferably with more haste and concern than you have applied to the budget problems that exist within California.

If you and the other legislators do the job in a timely manner your forecast of criminal disaster will be avoided. The alternative might be the loss of your position and that of many other legislators.

Milt Bernstein is a Newhall resident. His column reflects his own opinions and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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