California’s criminal justice system is complicated and a confusing mess, and the recent proposal to release thousands of convicted criminals back into our communities early makes it even worse.
Just last month, Charlie Samuel was released to a drug rehabilitation program after serving a partial prison sentence for a “non-violent” crime. Samuel could have drifted into obscurity among the thousands of parolees in California, but just days after his release he made national headlines for murdering seventeen-year-old Lily Burk when she failed to produce cash during Samuel’s botched robbery attempt.
Lily Burk was a National Merit Scholar and a budding writer who had published reviews in LA Weekly since the age of 12. Charlie Samuel, despite his record of stealing to support his drug habit, had been given a pass to visit a local DMV office the day Lily Burk was robbed and killed. Samuel eluded supervision and began hunting for victims on LA County streets. Several hours later, Lily Burk was found dead, and Charlie Samuel was back in custody where he should have been all along.
Charlie Samuel is a perfect example of California’s perplexing criminal justice system—a convict who spent his adult life fueling his drug addiction by stealing despite the criminal justice system’s repeated attempts to help him change his life. Although Samuel showed no signs of rehabilitation, he was granted release early only to return to his lifelong profession—stealing—this time with a fatal outcome. Sadly, the Burk tragedy shocks our sense of public safety to the core and underscores the desperate need for meaningful reform to our state’s criminal justice system.
Today, California spends $440 million taxpayer dollars on rehabilitation programs for criminals like Charlie Samuel, an average of $2,562 per inmate. System-wide spending on rehabilitation programs has increased to 12 percent of the total corrections budget. Yet, the return-to-prison rate for inmates involved in rehabilitation programs is well over 70 percent.
Lily Burk’s family and the larger community must be asking numerous questions about why career criminals like Charlie Samuel are allowed to enter low-level security programs, like the one he drifted away from. Even if criminals like Samuel are returned to prison for “non-violent” offenses, their past criminal history should indicate their likelihood to re-offend and the risk they pose to Californians.
Federal courts have chosen to ignore the impact that early release programs like this have on public safety, despite an increasing number of dramatic crimes committed by inmates out on early release. Recently, a three-judge panel ordered the state to release over 40,000 prisoners who are identified as Level 1 or “non-violent.” The court has suggested using a mixture of early release and “alternative custody” such as the type Samuel escaped before killing Lily Burk.
Law enforcement experts and district attorneys across the state agree that these actions will ultimately result in a dramatic surge in criminal activity by these “non-violent offenders.” Inmates in this category include those who’ve committed crimes like stalking, abusing a child to the point of causing great bodily injury, soliciting someone to commit murder, possessing firearms as a felon, and engaging in human trafficking—crimes most people would consider serious and potentially violent.
The liberal majority say they have California’s interest at heart by pushing the Legislature to enact the three-judge panel’s plan. All the while, law enforcement experts and district attorneys across the state remain staunchly opposed to the “fix” passed off the Senate Floor by the liberal majority. The three-judge panel’s order is dangerous to the public, but instead of looking for ways to protect Lily Burk and other law-abiding citizens, Democrats are rushing to open California’s prison gates so convicts like Samuel can go free.
It’s a matter of public record that liberal legislators have long opposed building new prisons and expanding existing correctional facilities. It is time they acknowledge their role in creating the overcrowded prisons that have led to the court-ordered prisoner reduction. One way to rectify the harm of the Legislature’s inaction is to support efforts to protect the public from criminals who could be released early with or without continuing supervision. Passing my Senate Bill 440 would be a quick way to keep inmates who pose risks behind bars. SB 440 would reclassify the crimes listed above as “serious” or “violent,” allowing prisons to keep those kinds of offenders behind bars.
It’s about time liberal legislators began putting the safety of law-abiding citizens above the rights of those who would rob us of our life, liberty, and freedom. We must keep criminals behind bars and far away from our families and communities. The first and foremost job of this Legislature is to protect the people of California, and we must carry out that duty now.
Every California citizen should feel safe in their community and this Legislature should recognize its primary duty to protect its citizenry and to promote public safety, not compromise it.
State Senator Jeff Denham (R-Merced) represents the 12th Senate District.