By Tom McEnery
Tom McEnery is mayor of San Jose.
TIME after time those convicted of violent, terrible crimes are paroled with an insensitivity and cavalier regard for the local community.
The system seems more concerned about the welfare of criminals than the well-being of citizens — more concerned about safety in prisons than safety in our neighborhoods. It’s not just the John Bunyards or the Archie Fains — they are only two among 200 violent crime parolees released to this county alone in a given year — but individuals with histories of homicide, rape, robbery or aggravated assault. San Jose and other cities throughout this state have become dumping grounds for paroled violent felons — and a paroled violent felon has a one-in-two chance of being returned to prison for parole violation. When will it stop?
I am also appalled by the short time actually served by felons convicted of violent crimes. It is a travesty that most are released after serving only one-half to two-thirds of their original sentences.
Should a murderer sentenced to life imprisonment be eligible for parole after only 12 1/2 years? The answer is obvious to all but those who have the power to do something about it. Good-time credits may be necessary to control criminals in prison, but not at the expense of controlling criminals on our streets. Full and just sentences must be served.
Last January, long before Larry Singleton captured the media’s attention, I proposed, and the San Jose City Council unanimously supported, sponsoring legislation to reform sentencing and parole policies. Two of these measures have just become law:
(check) Truth-in-sentencing (AB 1731) will require the courts, at the time of sentencing, to inform crime victims as to the time the defendant will actually serve, taking into account “good-time and work-credit” impacts on the total sentence imposed. As things stand now, only the criminals and attorneys know that many convicted felons are released after serving only half of their original sentence.
(check) Community notification (AB 1728) will require local law enforcement officers to be notified in advance and given the opportunity to respond before a felon is paroled to their neighborhoods.
Another measure, which has not yet been adopted, is an Assembly bill that would return parolees to prison for completion of their original sentences if their conduct on parole is violent or shows disregard for public safety. Currently, parole violations usually result in only a six month return to prison.
If enacted, these measures will serve to strengthen the rights and protect the safety of the citizenry. But the job seems far from finished.
Historian Arnold Toynbee once said, “Life and law must be kept closely in touch (for) the only point in having law is to
make life work.”
The criminal justice system represents law that is out of touch with everyday life. Making violent offenders serve their full sentences would help to make life work, not for the criminal, but for the citizen. Notifying local law enforcement officers of parole decisions and placements would help make life work, again — not for the criminal, but for the community.
The safety of ordinary families from violent offenders must be a top priority as we continue to reassess the criminal justice system, and today it simply is not. While the measures I have mentioned briefly have cost implications for the California taxpayer, they do not have to result in choosing between jailhouses and schoolhouses.
The cost of making some common-sense changes are far less than the price of violent crime.