On Friday, September 1, a Sacramento judge rejected California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s attempt to throw out a lawsuit challenging the Newsom Administration’s scheme to grant early release to tens of thousands of prison inmates. The suit, brought by the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) on behalf of crime victims and their families, argues that administrative regulations authorizing the inmate releases, adopted in 2021 by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), violate numerous state laws and ballot measures that specify when and how a prison inmate qualifies for credits to gain early release and when those credits may be used to advance a minimum eligible parole date. The Foundation is seeking a writ of mandate to halt the releases.
The Attorney General claimed that victims of crime have no interest in the punishment of perpetrators that is worthy of consideration by the courts, and on that basis argued that the case should be thrown out without even reaching the question of whether the regulations are valid. He also claimed that the petition had not alleged a breach of any legal duty by CDCR, even though the petition noted CDCR’s duty to hold inmates in prison until the legal end of their sentence.
In the September 1 decision, Judge Jennifer K. Rockwell rejected the Attorney General’s arguments for dismissal of the suit against the permanent regulations. She held that the interest argument “fails” and the duty argument is “meritless.” The judge did dismiss claims that temporary regulations were improperly adopted on the ground that the permanent regulations have now made these claims moot. The judge ordered both parties to submit additional argument regarding whether the state is unlawfully releasing prison inmates under the CDCR program.
At the time CDCR announced the new regulations, it estimated that they would result in nearly 10,000 fewer prisoners by fiscal year 2023-24. Many of the criminals being released early under this program are serious and violent offenders. Two-thirds of inmates released from prison are arrested for new crimes within three years, according to CDCR. It is therefore likely that a significant part of the serious crime and violence plaguing the state today is being committed by criminals set free under Newsom’s policies, and that portion will grow as time goes on.
Granting early release to thousands of inmates is making it possible for Governor Gavin Newsom to achieve his goal of closing down state prisons. California had 120,000 inmates in prison in 2019. Today the state has roughly 95,000 inmates. In September 2021, the state closed Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy. The state prison in Susanville is scheduled to close this year. Two other prisons, in Blythe and California City, are scheduled to close by March 2025. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, there are currently 15,000 empty prison beds.
Last January a young police officer in the small farming town of Selma was shot and killed by a gang member who was sentenced in March 2022 to five years in prison for several felonies. He was released in November 2022 after serving seven months. Gang member Nathaniel Dixon was arrested in possession of the gun suspected of being used in the murder. Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp called Newsom’s release plan a “warped system that allows active and violent criminals to receive arbitrary time credits.”
Judge Rockwell has scheduled another hearing on October 9, where the Attorney General will be required to defend the legality of the Governor’s early release program.
“Attorney General Bonta claims that he is committed to the rights of crime victims, yet in this case he tried to have victims thrown out of court without even deciding the merits of their case,” said CJLF’s Legal Director Kent Scheidegger, the lead attorney on the case. “He has some explaining to do.”
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