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Reducing prison population in black and white

January 2, 2012

by Allen Jones

California prisons are so overcrowded – this is Lancaster State Prison – a federal court order demands the release of some 33,000 prisoners. Lawmakers have finally begun the release – to county jails rather than the street – but are those most deserving of release on the list? – Photo: Spencer Weiner, AP
California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to send nonviolent prisoners back to county jails under a new law is akin to Santa giving gifts to Satan. This new law, AB-109, also known as “Realignment,” reclassifies certain nonviolent, non-serious and some sex offense felonies, allowing the convicted to serve time in a county jail, home detention or probation instead of prison.

I am all for releasing people who do not belong in prison. However, if we continue to treat men and women who commit crimes like animals on a leash, with unfair laws that create more envy than solution to recidivism, then we will never release the right prisoner.

With public safety in mind, lawmakers have followed up the Three Strikes law that voters approved in 1994 with their own unsafe and ill-conceived law. AB-109, signed by Gov. Brown to meet a federal court order to reduce California’s prison population, might satisfy the court but denies hope to some deserving inmates in the name of “public safety.”

Before AB-109 became law, the situation with current California prisoners Michael James, a Black inmate, and Michael Schneider, a white inmate, was this:

Michael James, convicted in 1994, is serving a 25-to-life sentence under Three Strikes for passing a bad check at an Alpha Beta store for $94.

Michael Schneider, convicted in 2008, is serving a 28-year-four-month sentence for running fraudulent real estate investment scams and Ponzi schemes for over 14 years, stealing over $43,000,000 from more than 57 investors, many of whom were elderly and lost their life savings. He pleaded no contest to 173 felony counts, including residential burglary, builder financial abuse, embezzlement, grand theft and forgery.

Unbelievably, these two men will serve the same amount of time behind bars. James must serve a minimum of 25 years while Schneider could be release after serving only 24 years. But wait!

Michael Schneider, a Ponzi schemer, is also labeled under AB-109 as a “N3” type offender: 1) nonviolent, 2) non-serious and 3) not a sex offender, even though he stole $43 million. Under this new law, N3 convicted candidates are most likely to avoid prison time as of Oct. 1, 2011. James is a petty thief, but he’s also labeled a Three Strikes offender.

Schneider is not the type of prisoner to start prison riots or hunger strikes. Our elected officials presume a fearful public would prefer to have him back in their community over the prisoner who fits the image of the typical criminal. Nevertheless, it appears that fear is passing so many laws that commonsense can be heard shouting, “Enough already!”

Lawmakers have made it clear that no inmate would be released from state prison to the street under AB-109. However, anyone who believes that none these prisoners will be set free, considering the extra burden placed on the counties and the county jails, probably also believes there is a Santa Claus.

In all fairness, lawmakers, in fear of being labeled soft on crime, should share the blame of creating a bad law with all Californians. On the other hand, nonviolent Wall Street type criminals currently serving time in California prisons are receiving a share of AB-109 as the state’s largest Christmas gift.

Prison officials are working around the clock with teams of mental health, rehabilitation, probation and other agencies of the state to find those best suited for release to county control. However, in the process, they have to pass over more than 8,000 second and third strikers who pose a lesser threat to public safety.

Matt Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, referred to “Brown’s plan” as the solution to comply with the court order. That tells me Cate is so interested in keeping his job he endorses releasing an undeserving individual from prison, while more deserving prisoners, many Black, rot in prison for petty crimes.

With the tool of AB-109 to assist and a computer program assessment already in use to release inmates, many undeserving individuals will move to the front of the line for release.

California’s Three Strikes law is being treated as if it is not guilty of contributing to the large number of truly nonviolent inmates and being responsible for prison overcrowding. Second and third strikers are not eligible for early release under the new law.

AB-109 unjustly and intentionally disqualifies these inmates simply because of the label “career criminal” associated with the Three Strikes law.

Gov. Jerry Brown, the California legislature and prison Secretary Matthew Cate, should be forced to answer to the fact that a white nonviolent prisoner who stole $43 million would be safer to release than a Black nonviolent prisoner who stole $94.

In addition, we should all demand that California lawmakers amend AB-109, designed to comply with the federal order to ease prison overcrowding. This law must allow many of the 8,000 nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex offenders who are also N3 types to be considered for transfer to the county level.

Contact the governor’s office today: Gov. Jerry Brown, c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173, Sacramento CA 95814, (916) 445-2841. He can also be reached through his website, at http://gov.ca.gov/m_contact.php.

San Francisco writer Allen Jones, author of “Case Game: Activating the Activist,” can be reached at (415) 756-7733 or jones-allen@att.net. Visit his website, at http://casegame.squarespace.com.

 

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