Living as I do in the peaceful, wooded foothills of eastern Shasta County, I still sometimes find it hard to believe there’s a crime epidemic sweeping the fair city of Redding in the valley below. It’s easy to get lulled into the idea California’s ongoing experiment with prison realignment and sentencing reform is doing just fine.
As just about everyone who lives in the city of Redding knows, it isn’t. The experiment began with the passage of AB 109 in 2011, the state Legislature’s response to the federal government’s declaration that our prison system was unconstitutionally overcrowded and could not provide adequate health care to the inmates.
To reduce overcrowding, AB 109 among many other things created a new criminal class, the so-called non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious felony offender. Inmates that met the new classification were either released from prison or transferred to county-supervised probation. Persons convicted of non-non-non felony offenses are now incarcerated in county jails instead of being sent to prison.
The distinction between violent and non-violent offenders also underlies various legislation and public initiatives designed to reform criminal sentencing. Prop 47, The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act passed by voters in 2014, reclassified certain non-violent felonies as misdemeanors and allowed state prisoners to petition for re-sentencing. Felony thresholds for theft were raised from $400 to $950, in part to reduce county jail populations impacted by AB 109.
As a result of prison realignment and sentencing reform, California’s state prison population has been dramatically reduced—although not yet to the level required by the feds. A growing number of non-violent offenders, including drug addicts and the mentally ill, are receiving county-level services from the types of evidence-based rehabilitation programs championed by Senator-elect and California State Attorney General Kamala Harris. The state’s efforts are being heralded in academic quarters as a model for the nation.
Nevertheless, both rural and urban counties are struggling with the transition, and crime rates are rising. In Redding, all hell has broken loose and just about anyone you talk to will tell you that prison realignment and sentencing reform are the source of the problems.
Before my interview last week with Shasta County Chief Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett, I posed a question on the Redding Crime 2.0 Facebook page, one of many local groups dedicated to tracking local criminals. “Do you think AB 109 has caused the increase in crime?” I asked. Among the many responses in the affirmative, I received this epic video rant from Anje Watson Walfoort, a co-founder of the Take Back Redding Facebook group.
Like many people in Redding these days, Walfoort, mother of a grown son and a teenage daughter, is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Both she and her son have been crime victims and she fears for her daughter’s safety. She’d hoped to have the video out before the election, in opposition to Prop 57, the latest layer of sentencing reform passed overwhelmingly by voters two weeks ago.
Anyone who isn’t familiar with the issue is urged to watch the video, which has more than 2100 views so far—after you read the story.
As Chief Deputy District Attorney, Bridgett is intimately familiar with the complaints detailed in Walfoort’s video, since local prosecutors have been battling to keep up with the changes wrought by AB 109 since its inception five years ago.
She’s been a DA going on 15 years and says local citizens are justified in connecting AB 109 to Shasta County’s ongoing crime wave. The jail, already overcrowded before the legislation passed, simply lacks the capacity to meet the legislation’s demands, she explained during an hour-long conversation on the topic, which is presented here edited for continuity, clarity and length, with occasional transitions provided by me.
I began by asking Bridgett how AB 109 has impacted the work of local prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office.
“The biggest impact it’s had on our office is the … sentences that we get from a judge after a sentencing hearing or a jury trial, aren’t always actually fulfilled, because the jail lacks the capacity to house everybody.
“So we have to take that into consideration. Part of us, as a prosecutor, thinks, well, if the case is worth a certain amount of jail time, that’s just a fact, and that’s what we settle for, regardless of where they’re going to be housed, because justice dictates that. Whether they go to state prison or they go to the local jail matters not.
“But in reality, we haven’t been able to stick with that too much, because … we give them two years and they go to the jail, but their crime is less egregious than the other three-hundred-and-some people there, they end up getting kicked out with their sentence served in full after a week, instead of their full two years. They’re back out committing crimes with a new boldness, because they know they just got a two-year sentence that meant a week.”
When I brought up the subject of non-non-non felony offenders, it was clear Bridgett doesn’t care much for the distinction.
“I know what you’re talking about, kind of that saying of a non-sex offender, non-strike, but these are still serious felonies, they are false imprisonment of an elder, possession for sale of drugs, vehicle theft, vehicle manslaughter while intoxicated, hate crimes, theft or fraud from an elder. These are serious crimes. I know they label them under that non-non-non, but they are crimes that should have a punishment attached to them that’s carried out. It’s not being carried out. Not because the sheriff’s not doing their job and housing them, they simply can’t [because of lack of jail capacity].”
In a nutshell, what’s the impact of AB 109 so far as it applies to the ongoing crime wave?
“It’s having these people once they get out having this new boldness because they weren’t actually punished for their crime.”
While alternative sentencing to jail is available, those programs have capacity limitations as well.
“[A jail sentence] can be transferred to another form of custody, say GPS, electronic home confinement, work program, sometimes it can be commuted to that type. But there’s capacity issues with that too, because you have to have staff to man all of that and we have a finite number of GPS systems to put on people. So not everybody is going to get out of jail into one of those alternative things. Even if they do, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to show up for work program. Work program is a lot easier than sitting in custody for two years.
“With that being the reality, we try to find other ways to sentence them, you have to get a little more creative in the way you handle your cases, every one is very fact-specific or case-specific on what we’re going to do.”
I asked Bridgett if it was true that career criminals are paying attention to changes in the law, such as the felony theft threshold that was raised from $400 to $950 by Prop 47.
“They are. It’s not uncommon to read in a police report that a person goes into WalMart with a calculator and a list and they’re writing down prices. When they walk out stealing all those items they have a boldness of, ‘Well, this is only a misdemeanor, it’s only $800, it’s only $900,’ because the threshold is $950. So, absolutely, the people who are inclined to commit those crimes are aware of what the law is.
“A lot of them have criminal convictions already, either misdemeanors or felonies, so they don’t really care if they get another misdemeanor conviction, because they know they’re not going to sit in the jail most likely, and they don’t care about their criminal record because they already have a criminal record. So it’s kind of created almost a free-for-all for the people who are already in that position, who have a criminal record and know they’re not going to go to jail.”
Prison realignment and sentencing reform have also impacted the relationship between prosecutors and crime victims.
“We have a crime victims assistance unit that deals directly with the victims and it’s certainly a different conversation we’re having with them now than they did say ten years ago. Ten years ago even on misdemeanor cases you could say, you’re a victim of misdemeanor battery and the person who did this to you will probably get an offer to resolve it for a certain amount of jail time plus certain other penalties and they’re going to actually serve that jail time.
“The conversation is different now. We’re sorry this happened to you, but they’re probably not going to spend any time in jail. That conversation happens to occur with felony cases now, too. The victims are not happy.”
I asked Bridgett about the connection between drug addiction and increasing “smash-and-grab” type property crime.
“I definitely think there’s a connection there. A way for addicts to feed their addiction is to steal items, trade it for drugs, sell it and use the money for drugs. These are people who are addicted, they need their next drug because they’re not in rehab. They often resort to certain kinds of property crime, against our business owners and our community members in order to feed their addiction.”
Yet sentence reform is now making it more difficult to force drug addicts into treatment.
“A lot of crimes that had traditionally been felonies that would come into the system there would be some teeth to the probation, because they’re on felony and they could go to prison, they can be forced to go to rehab and get treatment to keep them out of prison. It was a win-win because they could get their treatment, kick their addiction, and then in most cases those cases would be reduced to misdemeanors or even dismissed. There was a way to force that to happen.
“You change those cases from felonies to misdemeanors and now there’s no hammer, no teeth, nothing to make these people who aren’t getting something for their addiction to get some help. Most of them have drug convictions already, so what does it matter if you get another one? Or they’re so much into their addiction that it really doesn’t matter. There’s no formal probation officer involved with misdemeanors, there’s no oversight on those.”
Bridgett confirmed that the heroin epidemic coursing across rural America has indeed landed in Shasta County.
“Heroin is on the rise for sure. It’s a big problem now. When I started working here back in the early 2000s, you never saw a misdemeanor or a felony or anything related to heroin. It would have been a felony back then. It was unheard of when we filed one. Now, it’s very common, you see them every day, heroin cases.”
Methamphetamine also remains a significant problem; often heroin and meth use occur in tandem, along with the petty crimes it takes to feed a habit. But thanks to criminal justice reform, criminal addicts may be even less likely to get help. Bridgett thinks that’s because prison realignment and sentencing reform aren’t being realistically funded.
“I think with all of the changes that have occurred, AB 109, Prop 47, Prop 57 and Prop 64, all of those have components with good intentions to them, but the problem is that the funding and resources haven’t kept up with it.
“If we had a bigger jail capacity when AB 109 came out, we could have absorbed those people, instead of having them over spill into our community.
“When Prop 47 came out, if the funding had come with it so probation could have officers to work with misdemeanor offenders and put drug rehabilitation programs and facilities in place at the same time, to absorb those, then we wouldn’t have seen those people just pour out into our streets.”
“We haven’t been able to absorb these changes and these people are instead pouring into our streets without the resources they need to be successful. Just getting them out of jail isn’t going to accomplish that. There’s got to be other things that go with it.
“If we had the jail component to properly house all the ones that need to be, and we had the funding for the different resources we need in our community for both drug addiction and mental health, both, because both are heavily involved in the criminal justice system, if those people can get the help they need, then a lot of them could be successful in life and not be in the system.”
I asked Bridgett about Prop 57 and the coming changes in the juvenile justice system.
“Prior to Prop 57, the district attorney’s office had the ability when a case would come into us against a juvenile, and let’s say the juvenile committed a murder, or raped two or three people, this is someone like 16 years old, those are enumerated crimes where we could see it, see the crime, see their age, read the facts and say, we’re filing this case in adult court. It was our decision, because we review all the cases that come in for filing. We could just file it right into adult court.
“Prop 57 eliminated that ability. Those cases cannot be directly filed by our office any longer. It’s the judge’s decision.
“It will definitely impact us, because there are cases that we file that are juveniles who have committed homicides, and we [formerly] filed them directly into adult court. Or juveniles who have committed egregious sex crimes. I have confidence in our judges that they’ll make the right decisions on those cases, but you never know what’s going to happen. From the prosecution’s side, being able to be sure, to know that those crimes are going to be tried as an adult was a good thing and definitely preferable.”
I asked Bridgett if prosecutors from other jurisdictions have expressed having similar problems in their counties.
“Absolutely, everyone is having lots of problems. Some of the bigger counties, down in LA and whatnot, have bigger jails, so when AB 109 did that big shift, they were able to absorb more offender into the local jail than we did. But that doesn’t mean they’re not having all the same or at least similar issues.”
Understanding that the presidential election was a bit of a touchy subject and this is California, I obliquely asked Bridgett if she saw Trump’s victory as a referendum on law and order.
“I hope so. We’ve been taking hit after hit since 2011, since AB 109 started, and I hope this is the last round. I really do.”
As Deputy Chief DA, Bridgett is second in command, but retiring DA Stephen Carlton has tipped her as his potential successor. I asked her if taking the top job, should it come to pass, was daunting, given the changes brought by criminal justice reform.
“No. Hopefully, that’s going to put me in a position where I can do the most good in applying these laws and making sure the right people are going to be in jail, and on the flip side, those who can be rehabilitated get that chance.
That was a great place to end the interview, but Bridgett wanted to talk more about Prop 57. Recognizing that lawyers don’t give away free time for nothing, I staid put. The problem with Prop 57, from Bridgett’s point of view, the view from the prosecution, is directly related to the legal distinction between violent and non-violent felony offenders.
“As I said, on the juvenile side, I have confidence that our local judges are going to make the right call on those cases. But on the other side what Prop 57 did was it changed our sentencing laws.
“Only violent felonies can go to prison for their full prison term. If something is a nonviolent felony, the California Department of Corrections has the unilateral ability to grant them a parole date after only serving the base term of their offense, and then release them.
“They didn’t specifically write into Prop 57 what violent and non-violent is. So what you have to fall back on is the penal code definitions of what’s violent, and anything that’s not on the violent list is non-violent. So the violent list has murder, attempted murder, rape in concert, arson, those types of crimes. Non-violent crimes would be domestic violence, soliciting to commit murder, first degree burglary …”
At this point I interrupted Bridgett and asked wait, isn’t it kind of oxymoronic that domestic violence is a non-violent offense?
“Correct … hate crimes, assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer, exploding a destructive device with intention to cause injury—if you look at the penal code for what’s violent, anything that’s not on that list is non-violent—assault and battery with serious bodily injury, human trafficking of a minor is not violent.
“So let’s use one of those crimes off the non-violent list and see how Prop 57 has effected them.
“Let’s say we have felony-level domestic violence offender A. It’s the first time the person has ever been arrested for felony domestic violence. They’ve never been to prison before, they don’t have anything else, but it was a very egregious case, one where we say, you know what? This is bad enough we’re going to send you to prison for a base term of four years.”
“So then you have another person, offender B, who commits domestic violence and let’s say its factually identical to offender A’s. But offender B has a strike. He was holding a gun at the same time he was committing the domestic violence. He’s got prison priors, because he’s been to prison three times.
“They’ve both been charged with domestic violence. But offender B has been charged with having a gun and three prior prisons. Offender A can go to prison for a maximum of six years. Offender B can go to prison for a maximum of 20 years.
“We give A four years and they go off to prison. We give B four years also, but we add 16 years of enhancements, because of his past. Now [after Prop 57], these people go off to prison, and at the end of four years, they’re both eligible for parole.
“The one with the four years gets out automatically, because he doesn’t have those enhancements. But Prop 57 says that the California Department of Corrections can unilaterally decide to completely disregard all of those enhancements and let someone out after they complete their base term, which is just a HUGE change in the sentencing laws. … It gave them the ability to disregard consecutive sentencing and enhancements.”
She still wasn’t done. I knew in advance that prosecutors are at best lukewarm about the changes that have been forced upon them. I am beginning to understand why: It’s preventing them from doing their job effectively.
“You really need a flow chart to figure out where people can go nowadays. Rape of an intoxicated person is considered non-violent under Prop. 57. Human trafficking of a minor is nonviolent under Prop 57. They could traffic ten minors and be let out after serving the sentence for just one kid.
“So all these victims are in court and they hear the judge pronounce a 50-year sentence, and they’re like great I’m never going to see this person again. They can’t have confidence in that now, because that judge’s sentence can be basically overruled by the California Department of Corrections. And they can be let out after five or six years.”
If you’re still wondering what the fuss is all about and you haven’t watched the video at the top of the story, here it is again.