County mistakes, not reform laws, allowed the alleged killer of a Whittier police officer to go free
The killing last year of Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer added some punch to what had become a sagging campaign to blame California’s historic criminal justice reforms for an uptick in crime rates.
It was AB 109 “realignment,” some argued, or perhaps Propositions 47 and 57, that led directly to the shooting of Boyer and another officer at the scene of a traffic accident on Feb. 20, 2017, allegedly at the hands of Michael Christopher Mejia.
A repeat violent offender, Mejia had cycled in and out of prison before being released in April 2016 — only to be arrested four times after that, allegedly over violating the terms of his release. The last of these came a few weeks before Boyer’s slaying.
Now, reporting by The Times and the Marshall Project reveals what Los Angeles County officials apparently have known all along: Slip-ups by prosecutors and perhaps other county agencies — not the criminal justice reforms that have received so much of the blame — left Mejia at liberty on the day of the killing. County officials had plenty of evidence before them that Mejia ought to have been kept behind bars and then sent to drug treatment, and they had the tools at their disposal to make that happen. They didn’t use them.
Under criminal justice reform laws that have been the target of pointed criticism, probation officers could have sent Mejia to jail for 90 days after he violated the terms of his release. That’s close to the average amount of time for which an offender accused of a similar violation would have been sent to prison after violating his parole under the old system, before AB 109 and Propositions 47 and 57.
In fact, the Probation Department did recommend the full three months in jail, followed by another three months in a drug program. The deputy district attorney, however, agreed to jail time of just a few days.
Meanwhile, in between short “flash incarcerations,” Mejia added new facial tattoos displaying his gang affiliation. He resumed drug use. He offered law enforcement officials plenty of evidence that he was a risky bet. The law gave them the power and the discretion to keep him locked up.
But they made a mistake.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the revelations, contained in secret county reports ordered by the Board of Supervisors in the wake of the shooting, is that county leaders have long had the evidence before them that it was their employees’ performance rather than a legal mandate that set the stage for the killing of Officer Boyer.
Yet that did not stop the supervisors from using the killing to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Safety to study the effect of the reform laws. It did not stop Sheriff Jim McDonnell from blaming the Boyer killing, the killing of L.A. County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen and increases in crime generally on the reform laws. Nor has it stopped a host of police chiefs, prosecutors and politicians from trying to discredit, modify or roll back the reforms.
Nor has it stopped many commentators and news reporters from completely misstating what the laws do.
The situation is reminiscent of the aftermath of a horrific quadruple killing in Northridge in 2012, committed a year after the “realignment” law took effect. Officials blamed the new law for leaving the killer, Ka Pasasouk, at large when he should have been locked up. But it turned out that Pasasouk was free not because of anything to do with the new law, but because a deputy district attorney mistakenly recommended him for a drug treatment program for which he was not eligible instead of jail.
The realignment law, AB 109, adopted by the Legislature in 2011, assigns to counties some of the offenders once handled by the state. People convicted of nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual crimes go to county jail instead of state prison. In addition, some offenders on parole for violent crimes are supervised by county probation officers instead of state parole agents and are sent to jail instead of prison if they violate the terms of their release, as was the case with Mejia.
Proposition 47 made simple drug possession and several property crimes misdemeanors instead of “wobblers” — crimes that prosecutors could choose to charge as either misdemeanors or felonies. And Proposition 57 gives inmates an incentive to participate in rehabilitation programs by offering those eligible a chance to apply for earlier parole.
None of these laws mandate early prison release. Nevertheless, that false assertion has been made at city council meetings and police roll calls, on talk radio programs and in news stories, and in front of big-box stores where petitioners are currently gathering signatures for a ballot measure to undermine the steps forward that California voters have taken on criminal justice over the last five years.
That’s a shame — but not because the reforms are flawless and need no improvement. In fact, they pose some serious challenges, especially in Los Angeles County. For example, McDonnell is correct when he notes that his jail now includes a tougher brand of inmate than it once did; and for the first time, earlier this year, he began releasing convicted felons early — not because any reform law requires it, but because the county gave up jail beds to comply with an unrelated federal consent decree concerning the care of mentally ill inmates. That’s a vexing problem that must be fixed.
For the most part, though, public safety remains in the hands of the officials who we expect to deal with it: prosecutors, probation officers, police. We expect them to handle their tasks responsibly, with complete knowledge of the law and open lines of communication (we should be able to expect prosecutors, for example, to consult probation reports for warning signs of the type Mejia exhibited). We do not expect — and we must not accept — their blaming the law, rather than their own performance, for tragic mistakes.