Indivisible group seek clarity on prison reform laws

Colusa County Deputy County Council Brendan Farrell speaks at the monthly meeting of Indivisible Colusa County on Feb. 4 about the state’s prison and juvenile justice reform laws that have taken effect the past few years.

Indivisible Colusa County, a local volunteer-led group engaged in advocating for progressive policies, is getting up to speed on more than a dozen prison reform laws ushered in by the California Legislature in recent years when former Gov. Jerry Brown was in office. 

Colusa County Deputy District Attorney Brendan Farrell spoke to the group about the new laws at their Feb. 4 meeting, in Colusa.  

Since the organization’s initial formation as a resistance group following the election of President Donald J. Trump, Indivisible Colusa County has moved toward actively engaging in civic involvement and advancing progressive values, said organizer Jen Roberts, of Arbuckle. 

“Indivisible Colusa has gotten very involved in getting people to vote, doing community service, and connecting with community leaders to figure out what are the big issues in the county,” Roberts said. 

Farrell, who was this month’s guest speaker, said prison reform essentially started in 2011 to address overcrowding, after prisoners sued the State of California with claims that reduced services and limited access to facilities, such as bathrooms, constituted cruel and unusual punishment – a violation the the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Farrell said that in 1996, California had 32 prisons for a state population of 30 million people. By 2011, only 33 prisons served a population of 37.7 million – a 3 percent increase in facilities for a 17 percent increase in population.

“The population of California is skyrocketing,” Farrell added. “In order to keep up with it, you either need to build more prisons or have less people in prison.”

The State of California chose the latter. 

Prison overcrowding led to a number of laws designed to either move prisoners to county jails (AB 109), make a large number of felonies, including commercial burglary, theft, forgery, and drug possession, misdemeanors (Proposition 47), or increase opportunities for parole for inmates over age 60 (AB 1448) and non-violent offenders (Proposition 57). 

A host of juvenile justice reform laws were also passed by the Democratic majority, including allowing parole opportunities after serving 25 years to convicted murderers originally sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed when they were under the age of 26 (SB 394). 

New laws also greatly reduce juvenile involvement with the courts, including no juvenile court jurisdiction for crimes committed by those 12 and under (SB 439), and no adult court jurisdiction for crimes committed by those 15 and younger (SB 1391). 

California also passed a Sanctuary State law that restricts law enforcement involvement with criminal illegal immigrants (SB 54), and eliminated sentencing enhancements for criminals with prior drug trafficking crimes (SB 180). 

While Farrell agreed there are many prisoners in California that could and should be allowed out of jail, he felt that many of the laws were passed without legislators fully thinking through the consequences, especially laws that fail to protect victims or the victims’ families. 

The Colusa County District Attorney’s Office has filed a lawsuit trying to block future parole hearings for Nathan Ramazzini, a convicted murderer who was 16 when he killed Erik Ingebretsen, also 16, and was sentenced to life without parole. 

Ramazzini has already had one resentencing hearing and will be eligible to request parole again in a few years, Farrell said.  

The District Attorney’s Office, in the lawsuit, argued that SB 394 violates the California Constitution because it effectively amended a law previously established by a voter initiative, which should require a two-thirds vote in each house of the state legislature to pass. The Assembly passed SB 394 in 2017 with just 56 percent approval before moving it to the Senate. 

While Indivisible Colusa County members said they have a “moral obligation” to see that those they believe deserve a second chance be let out of prison, they said they recognize Colusa County is dealing with the consequences of progressive laws, including an increase in homelessness among those released from jail or prison with little or no resources.

The group plans to become actively involved in helping the homeless in Colusa County. They also plan to actively assist those who are serving in the Colusa County Jail to register to vote. 

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, last week introduced another progressive priority, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6, known as the Free the Vote Act, which would restore voting rights to all convicted felons after they are released from prison. If the State Legislature approves the amendment, it will make its way to voters in 2020 where it would then need a simple majority to become law.

Indivisible Colusa County has a number of events planned this year. They hope to bring Democratic supporters of the “Green New Deal” to speak at a public meeting in March, and they plan to get up to speed on new groundwater laws and other issues that affect Colusa County residents. The group meets on the first Monday of each month at various locations, and holds a coffee group meeting each Thursday in Arbuckle and a coffee group meeting on the third Saturday of the month in Williams.

More information on Indivisible Colusa County is available at indivisiblecolusa.org. ■