Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin says Riverside County residents and others in the state are suffering the consequences of “soft on crime” laws and policies that are increasingly proving costly and dangerous to the public.

“The law is being broken,” Hestrin said during a briefing at the district attorney’s office in downtown Riverside. “Our justice system has literally become a revolving door.”

Sheriff Chad Bianco, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez and Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward joined Hestrin in the complaint. They allege what the state justice system has become, a system that favors leniency for criminals, leaving law-abiding individuals exposed to further threats and harm.

Martin Santillan was arrested in 1997, charged with the robbery and murder of Damond Wittman outside a nightclub in the resort town of Deep Ellum. Today he was officially released.

“Nothing is a crime anymore,” Bianco said. “Everyone (in the state legislature) has gone deaf. It’s above. There has been a total failure of state government and the vast majority of legislators (due to) a political and philosophical agenda.”

Speakers highlighted Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011, as well as Propositions 47 and 57. They drew on an example that Hestrin and Ward said was symbolic of the collapse of justice in California: 31-year-old repeat offender Timothy Bethell of Winchester.

“Soft Crime Policy”

Bethell’s criminal record dates back to 2014, but responders focused on his activity from the summer of 2021, when he was involved in a series of robberies in Tulare County, costing businesses more than $20,000. According to Ward, a total of seven Visalia sites were attacked.

Bethell was arrested and pleaded not guilty to 14 felonies in September 2021, received a four-year suspended prison sentence and two years probation.

Under AB 109, because he was considered a nonviolent offender, he was placed on mandatory supervision and allowed to participate in a habitual offender rehabilitation program, which Hestrin said he abruptly left, then stealing from another Visalia business.

He was arrested after this incident and found guilty, receiving a one-year local jail term, meaning he was placed in the local jail to serve his sentence.

The Mohave County Special Investigations Unit discovered his identity through a DNA test.

He was released in May 2022 and allowed to return to his home county, Riverside, where he remained under mandatory supervision, but in the summer of 2022 he robbed five businesses in southwestern Riverside County, Hestrin said.

He was arrested and soon pleaded guilty to six counts, resulting in a three-year sentence in local state prison, to be served in a county detention center.

He was released three days later in what is called a “federal kickout” because the county has a federal injunction to ensure all inmates have a sleeping space.

When space runs out, sheriff’s officials must release so-called “low-level offenders” to make room for inmates who need one of the 3,998 available inmate beds.

Daniel Tovar has been in prison for 21 years and claims he is innocent.

Bethell returned to Tulare County and committed a string of robberies last December and January that earned him 17 felonies and two additional misdemeanors, to which he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to five years and four months in a county detention center.

“The price of social experimentation”

Ward said the case was “unfortunately indicative of life in California and its soft-on-crime policies.”

“We all pay the price for social experiments,” he said. “Victims have become the least important people in our courts.”

At a Los Angeles subway station, authorities blast classical music as part of a crime-fighting program to deter those who would otherwise sleep in the station.

González agreed, saying “some feel that any law or policy that punishes criminals is unfair.” He noted that the rate of robberies across the city had increased by 31% compared to the same period in 2022.

AB 109 was led by then-Governor Jerry Brown as part of his program to reshape state government and reduce prison overcrowding.

However, the law was fraught with pitfalls, including the transfer of many functions previously performed by state probation officers to county probation officers.

It established different categories of probation, including community supervision after release, and alternatives to prison, such as mandatory supervision.

To apply for this visa, the person had to be the victim of a crime and therefore it is important that there is a police report.

Low-level offenders, including parole violators, also had to serve their sentences behind bars in local detention centers, rather than penitentiaries. Bianco said that each day the county’s five correctional facilities are occupied by 450 to 500 inmates.

Speakers said Proposition 47, passed in 2014, put additional pressure on correctional resources, changing sentencing guidelines, making “non-serious” drug and property offenses misdemeanors instead of crime.

Proposition 57, passed in 2016, relaxed the state’s three-strike law and provided greater opportunities for early parole.

“We have to put an end to this”

Speakers questioned the rationale for retaining some of the provisions of AB 109, noting that overcrowding does not appear to be a factor now, as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to close a prison, cancel the lease of another and disable facilities in six other prisons.

The Texas Criminal Appeals Court on Monday (April 25) halted the execution of Melissa Lucio, which was scheduled for April 27, news that her friends and family celebrated.

“We have to put a stop to this,” Hestrin said. “We are doing everything we can to protect property in this county. But we can’t do it. The state will not protect you. We need help. To our governor, I would say stop the dog and pony show in other states and go back and deal with it.”

District Attorney Bianco and González said appearances before Legislative Assembly public safety committees got them nowhere.

“They’re looking at Facebook while we’re talking to them,” the sheriff said. “There is a total lack of respect.”

González said some lawmakers are stuck on the idea that “they can’t support anything that puts people of color in jail.”

All speakers called on residents to be proactive at the local level, sending the message to lawmakers that changes to state law are vital.

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