Opinion: With crime rates rising, has criminal justice reform gone too far?

Irina Baranova

Courts, prosecutors need some flexibility

In order for the criminal justice system to work properly, there needs to be accountability and consequences for engaging in criminal behavior. It is important that prosecutors and judges are given the discretion and flexibility to impose appropriate judgments based on a person’s past criminal history, mental history, substance abuse and level of danger to the community. The recent reforms have made it more difficult to achieve the balance necessary to reduce crime and ensure our community is safe.

Proposition 47 eliminated a host of theft cases from being charged as felonies. Previously, the prosecutor could decide to charge the theft as misdemeanor or felony (wobbler offense) based on the above criteria. An easy fix is to amend the theft crimes back to being wobblers and allow the courts to sentence a person appropriately.

With respect to bail reform, it is trending in the right direction. Being wealthy should not be the criteria for determining if a person should remain out of custody pending a criminal case. A person’s custody status should be based on two factors: danger to the community (including continuing to commit crimes) and likelihood to appear in court for all future appearances.

Lastly, true reform starts at home. Children model their behavior based on what they see and hear. Children need a stable environment in which they are loved and nurtured by their parents. Wealth is not a requirement. Education, work ethic, respect for others and sacrifice are requirements.

I was a prosecutor for 35 years and the common thread I saw for the vast majority of people caught up in the criminal justice system was a lack of an education and good role models. I suggest that people who want to reform the criminal justice system spend time in the courtrooms to truly appreciate the nature of the system. They will find that large numbers of defendants appear alone in court with no family or friends to support them.

Unless and until people address the issue of neglected children, we will never be able to achieve true criminal justice reform.

David Greenberg, Scripps Ranch

Rethink rehabilitation and reconciliation

Recent crime reforms in the United States and California have focused on targeting nonviolent crimes, specifically the possession of drugs and larceny. I think many agree that the reforms on possession of illegal substances, especially with the recent legalization of marijuana in the past years in California, are a net positive. However, we have begun to see a concerning rise in petty crime after legislation such as Proposition 47 in California and the United States. As the consequences of crime reform from the 2010s begin to take shape, it’s time to re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t.

Growing up in the City Heights area of San Diego, I experienced my fair share of illegal activities. I’m no stranger to repeat offenders. I spent most of my days outside observing the daily occurrences of my neighborhood and often saw repeated trips from the same officers to pick up the same individuals for numerous different crimes. As I grew up and got a job working at a retail pharmacy store in Serra Mesa, an area the residents I spoke with proclaimed as the “meth capital of San Diego,” I experienced much of the same thing. There were many nights where I had the same people come in, steal, get picked up by the police after waiting over an hour for assistance, only to see them shoplifting again at the store the next day. It got to the point where I didn’t even bother to call the police anymore because it felt pointless to go through all that work of reporting the crime to see the same repeat offenders the next day.

Since the passing of Proposition 47, large retailers such as Target, CVS and Rite Aid reported in 2016 an up to 15 percent increase in shoplifting. The Los Angeles Times reported that researchers found that Proposition 47 also led to an increase in car break-ins, shoplifting and other thefts. The Public Policy Institute of California reported in 2018 that, after the passing of Proposition 47, larceny rates had increased about 9 percent since 2014. It’s clear Proposition 47 has established a precedent that lets petty criminals thrive.

Proposition 47 isn’t all bad though, given the legalization of marijuana. Proposition 47 allows those in jail for possession of an illegal substance the opportunity to petition for resentencing. Not only does this allow people who were charged with illegal possession of a now-legal drug a shot at reconciliation, but it frees up valuable resources that can actually be utilized in rehabilitation efforts for those who really need it.

Crime reform is a very sensitive societal subject. As we can see, changes in legislation can have consequences that may not be seen for years to come. It’s important voters and legislators re-evaluate the data we’ve seen from the past few years and introduce legislation that supports the continued reconciliation and rehabilitation of people who were imprisoned for things like possession of marijuana, while also cracking down on petty crime and repeat offenders.

Anthony Nguyen, Rolando

Our nation has made being poor a crime

When I was in school, I remember reading about these terrible debtors’ prisons in England that the colonists were rebelling against and were outlawed in our country. Yet now as I learn more about how our criminal justice system works, especially for the poor, I realized that we have them back. How did that happen?

As the “anti-tax” movement grew in the ’80s and ’90s, state and local courts needed to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees to pay for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation and probation supervision. Those unable to pay some of these fees have been arrested and jailed, sometimes without having any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service. Those of us lucky enough to have not been involved in the criminal justice system were unaware of how, little by little, those fees and fines have mounted up. We need to have a review of what fines and fees we assign people and find better alternatives.

It is not only unfair to jail people who cannot pay these fines but is also fiscally unsound. Not only do we make it impossible for them to earn the money to pay the fines, but then it costs taxpayers more to house them in our jails.

There are vested interests who benefit from jailing more people. Too often their voices have drowned out those of us who are asking for justice, reason and empathy for those who get caught up in our system.

There have been changes in our county recently that are responses to these inequities. Let’s hope they continue and people in cities such as San Diego, Chula Vista, Oceanside and El Cajon also look at their fines and fees systems and see where there can be changes that benefit all of us and earn our respect rather than our embarrassment.

Jeanne Brown, Ocean Beach

Prison must punish, deter and rehabilitate

The criminal justice reforms debated here are frankly minutiae, the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Our criminal justice system is neither just nor remotely effective, and we need to make much more fundamental changes to fix that.

Tens of thousands of prisoners spend decades in overcrowded prisons that are more likely to harden their criminal behavior than to correct it, all at vast taxpayer expense, as well as negative impacts to their families and society. If we’re willing to really look at what a criminal justice system should do and make changes to do that, we could reduce the length of prison sentences, and thus our prison population, by a factor of 10 while also reducing crime.

Our justice system, and prison in particular, needs to accomplish three things that we must accept are all part of justice:

1) Punishment. This is what deters repeat and new offenders.

2) Repayment of a debt to society, for both the economic and other damage their crimes caused, and our cost to prosecute and imprison them.

3) Rehabilitation and productive reintegration into society.

The first two are best accomplished by making every prisoner work hard, for no pay whatsoever. There is nothing unfair or unjust about making people work hard, and it is certainly not cruel and unusual, or slavery. Hard work is part of the human condition, something that prisoners need to learn in order to become contributing members of society. The economic value society derives from prison labor is exactly how prisoners repay their debt to society.

There are a lot of hard jobs like forest management and firefighting, storm channel clearing and even road maintenance that we have neither enough tax dollars to pay for nor workers willing to do. Prisoners should be doing these jobs, in conditions that must be safe but not particularly comfortable.

Prison food needs to be nutritious and sufficient, period. No electronics, no food treats, no unsupervised mingling. Prison should make at least as strong a mental and emotional impression as military boot camp — no one should want to do it again. That can be done in months, not years.

Rehabilitation should come at the end of the sentence, should include life skills and job skills training, and we should provide strong transition assistance to every released prisoner, including temporary housing and school and/or job-placement assistance. A one-year sentence would be nine months of hard work, followed by three months of pure rehab/training.

Nonviolent first offense sentences should be months, not years. Violent crimes short of rape or murder would be one to three years, again hard work until the last three to six months. Rape, murder or repeat violent offenses should result in longer sentences, always at labor.

These reforms would reduce crime and especially repeat offenders, drastically reduce the time to rehabilitate criminals, be far more fair and equitable, and save a lot of tax dollars.

Marty Cohen, Mira Mesa

School children early on ethical behavior

The “reforms” made to the criminal justice system in recent years just get my blood boiling. “Reform” implies making something better than it was. Yes, these “reforms” are better for criminals, not for regular law-abiding, taxpaying citizens who are the backbone of a decent society. Why would any sane person in leadership want to choose criminals over law-abiding people? Our leaders are supposed to protect us, not put us in danger.

Reducing sentences does not give criminals any incentive to think twice about committing crimes. It does the opposite, and every day I read about good people getting robbed, burglarized and having cars stolen as well as stores experiencing shoplifting on a grand scale. Criminals know just how much to shoplift with impunity and go back for more. This has to stop. Of course these so-called “reforms” should be re-examined! I am tired of my rights being trampled while criminals’ rights get lifted above mine. Breaking the law should have consequences. Why are our lawmakers and leaders elevating criminals over us? What do they so blatantly not care about our safety? They are very vocal about letting criminals out early. Some district attorneys don’t even want to prosecute!

One way to possibly stop the upward trend of crime is to use a tactic so often used by leadership to change society to their will: social engineering. It is used in schools at the earliest ages. It could be called “Integrity and Ethical Behavior.” Actively teach kids from preschool on how to be moral, honest, have integrity and ethics that benefit a peaceful society. Think of how different the school environment alone would be for kids and teachers. Hopefully, no bullying, no more unruly and disrespectful schoolchildren. Teachers would actually be able to teach, instead of corral and referee. This would translate into less criminal thought and behavior, and ultimately less need for incarceration. And our leaders would not be in the position to choose criminals over us. Everyone wins and we’d all be proud of the next generation.

MarySue Carrillo, San Carlos

Policies should not be discriminatory

Proposition 47 was created to alleviate penalties for crimes, such as theft and drug-related crimes, by considering them to be misdemeanors instead of felonies. Many Californians are in support of amending Proposition 47 due to the rise in crimes taking place across our state. In a perfect world where no racism, poverty or discrimination exist, I would absolutely understand and support the amending of Proposition 47 in California. However, due to the fact that the people who are committing these misdemeanors are generally people of color from impoverished communities who do not have the resources needed to hire a good lawyer or seek help, I believe that it would be unfair and discriminatory to amend Proposition 47.

It would be very easy to amend Proposition 47 and call ourselves heroes for seeking to make our state a “safer” place. But safer for whom? Safer for Latinos who were born into a family cycle of being uneducated? No. Safer for African Americans who have had to work hard from a young age to help support their families? No. Safer for young men and women who have not had the same opportunities that middle- or upper-class people have had? No. It’s easy to see these individuals as the villains, but we need to understand that they are victims and a product of their environments. It is difficult to accept and understand that we are privileged, but our privilege is a gift and we should use it for good. We should encourage reform rather than incarceration.

Of course I am not in support of theft or drug activity, but I have also never had the responsibility of feeding my entire family with a yearly income of less than $35,000 (which is nothing in California), so I really do not have the right to judge people for their actions. I am also not stating that we should continue to allow high crime rates or turn a blind eye, but there are better ways of making a change that come from a place of compassion rather than vengeance. If middle- and upper-class Californians care so highly about the safety of our communities, we should work to make them a safer place for all of us, not just a select few.

It is really important that we stop permitting our actions to reflect selfishness and rather encourage compassion and hope. No Californian is more important than another and it’s never too late to do our part in making a change for all.

Cielo Duarte, Chula Vista

We have lost the power of deterrence

The duty of any government should be to protect its citizens. A good way to protect citizens is to establish laws that make a positive difference with tough consequences so would-be criminals think twice before committing a crime.

The governments of the United States and the state of California have gone soft. Criminals fear nothing anymore and cause havoc for the rest of us because of the lack of bite in the laws’ punishments. The ancient civilizations knew what they were doing when they established laws meant to scare possible criminals into rethinking criminal acts. Of course, populations were smaller, but the essential point was made: commit a crime, be ready to take the punishment.

Since those days, federal and local governments of this country have gone too far toward leniency. There needs to be a fine line between draconian and fair laws that will benefit all citizens. Cruel and unusual punishments, no, but punishment that fits the crime, yes. Deter the possible crime with a penalty meant to discourage the act.

Another point to consider about crime is parents and teachers failing to execute their jobs. In a perfect world, citizens would feel protected if all parents raised their children to respect authority and laws in general. Too many young children are raised in households with no guidance because parents do not have the time for one reason or another to be there for their children. Teachers, after five or six years of neglect, are expected to fill the void and turn around youngsters once they hit school age from a possible life of crime to contributing members of society. Teachers do their best, but the small amount of time they have can’t substitute for the time parents should have with their own children.

I have six grandchildren and each one of them deserves to grow up in a world where they can concentrate on the wonderful items of life, not the horrific possibilities caused by a growing percentage of human beings who just don’t get it.

Jim Valenzuela, Poway


https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/story/2022-02-25/opinion-with-crime-rates-rising-has-criminal-justice-reform-gone-too-far

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