Horrific as the killing of a Whittier cop may be, we can’t let emotion guide criminal justice reform
By The Times Editorial Board
The grief and anger caused by the horrific killing in February of Officer Keith Boyer has moved policymakers to seek three changes in laws dealing with how criminals are punished and then supervised after their release from incarceration. But grief and anger seldom turn into good criminal justice policy and in fact too easily push in the opposite direction. Such is the case with these responses to the Whittier killing — a bill in Sacramento moving toward the governor’s desk, a resolution being taken up by California’s cities and a commission formed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, all aimed at least in part at rolling back important criminal justice reforms.
Michael C. Mejia is charged with shooting Boyer to death at the scene of a traffic accident on Feb. 20, shortly after allegedly killing his own cousin. Mejia had completed a prison term for robbery and then another for grand theft, and at the time of the shooting was under post-release supervision by the Los Angeles County Probation Department. The Board of Supervisors ordered a report to determine, in part, any role that recent measures such as AB 109 had played in the shootings. That’s the 2011 “realignment” law that transferred jurisdiction over many felons and parolees from state corrections to county jail and probation officials.
The board received its report in April but has withheld it from the public. (On Tuesday the board put off for a week a motion by Supervisor Janice Hahn to release even a portion of the findings.) Documents reviewed by The Times, together with interviews with people familiar with the case, reveal that Mejia violated the terms of his release several times, prompting probation officials to impose “flash incarceration” — brief jail stays of up to 10 days for each new violation.
When he was found in violation a third time, the Probation Department sought to revoke his community supervision and send him to jail for 90 days. That period is equivalent to the average stay in state prison for offenders whose parole was revoked before AB 109. The department also sought an additional 90 days of mandatory drug treatment for Mejia after the jail term.
But the department was not included in the negotiations between prosecutors and defense lawyers, who agreed on a term of just 30 days, with no post-release treatment. Mejia was released after only 10. Then he again violated the terms of his release and received another flash incarceration before being let out one more time — in February, a week and a half before Mejia’s cousin and Boyer were slain.
The Assembly responded first by passing AB 1408, by Democrat Ian Calderon of Whittier, to eliminate a probation department’s ability to select the proper sanction for violating the terms of release after a third violation. The Senate passed an amended version, and the bill is now back before the Assembly.
It’s the wrong remedy. Probation departments are best able to properly tailor incentives, sanctions and supervision to offenders living in local communities. Besides, in Mejia’s case, L.A. County Probation did indeed seek a revocation hearing and made a good call — 90 days in jail. It just was ignored by other players in the criminal justice process. The bill wouldn’t fix that problem.
Meanwhile, the California League of Cities is taking up a resolution this week offered by the city of Whittier to amend AB 109 to, among other things, “change the criteria justifying the release of non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offender inmates to include their total criminal and mental health history instead of only their last criminal conviction.”
The resolution is based on a widely believed but false premise: that AB 109 changed whether, and when, any inmate is released from incarceration. It did not. It changed only where some felons can be sent (to county jail instead of state prison) and what happens after those inmates are released — whether they are supervised by state or county officers, and what choices those officers have for dealing with violations.
On a third front, the Board of Supervisors, with its Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Safety, is moving forward with its own critique of AB 109 and other criminal justice reform measures. In theory, the commission could provide a useful examination of how well or poorly the county has responded to its new challenges. But many of those involved have made it clear that their goal is not to appraise the county’s approach but rather to modify or scrap reform laws that have given officials new tools to promote rehabilitation and protect public safety, if only they would use them.
Criminal justice reform laws should be periodically reviewed for their effectiveness and updated as necessary. The Calderon bill and the cities’ resolution do offer some good ideas, such as demanding that state and county agencies do a better job sharing information about the full records and risks of each incarcerated and released felon. For the most part, though, these and too many other efforts to change laws are based on emotion rather than fact and are thus woefully off target.