Riverside County's sheriff and district attorney call out 'soft-on-crime' laws, policies

"They don't care what we think, they care what voters think," said Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2023
IE law enforcement officials call out 'soft-on-crime' laws, policies
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin and other law enforcement officials are calling for changes to the California Public Safety Realignment Act, saying it's tying their hands when it comes to keeping criminals off the streets.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin and other law enforcement officials are calling for changes to the California Public Safety Realignment Act, saying it's tying their hands when it comes to keeping criminals off the streets.

Speaking at a Wednesday afternoon press conference in Riverside, officials addressed the ongoing impacts of Assembly Bill 109, which shifted the incarceration and supervision of low level felons from the state to counties.

The state legislature passed the law in 2011 as a way to reduce the state's prison population by putting offenders in jail in the counties where their crimes occurred.

"Frankly, all of us up here on stage have had enough," said Hestrin. "We cannot protect our public, we are getting no help from Sacramento, the laws don't back us up."

Hestrin was joined by Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward to call on state legislatures to amend AB 109, which has tied their hands when it comes to prosecuting habitual criminals like Timothy Bethell, a "poster child" for a catch-release-and-repeat criminal.

Bethell burglarized 22 business, causing $20,000 in theft and damages across Riverside and Tulare counties.

"We filed all the felonies, all the charges, and we sought a significant prison sentence but under the law in this county we won't do more than three days," explained Hestrin.

AB 109 went into effect as part of former Gov. Jerry Brown's broad program to retool state government in his first term. Although some regional officials supported the program, including then-Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, serving as president of the California State Association of Counties, they later became skeptical or outright opponents.

"Is it too much to demand that in our system of justice, our victims be afforded some right to an authentic truth of justice and a hope of actual accountability and protection in public safety?" asked Ward.

Law enforcement officials is pleading with the state to do more.

"There was a time when theft, specifically repeated theft, was met with a consequence," said Riverside Police Larry Gonzalez. "These days, they have been legislated away and our community is suffering as a result."

Gonzalez said property crime in Riverside is up by 31%.

In January, a shopping center in Riverside was repeatedly targeted by smash-and-grab burglars, which caused significant damage to the businesses.

Officials are asking the state's Public Safety Committee to amend AB 109 to allow prosecutors to send repeat offenders to state prisons to serve a longer sentence.

"They don't care what we think, they care what voters think," said Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco. "Until we can get the voters fed up and the voters start calling them, it is not going to change."

Officials also said it's time to question the justification for the law, given that Brown's rationale for signing it -- to reduce prison overcrowding -- no longer appears valid.

"Since then, the state prison population has decreased so much that in December, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation announced that within the next two years, it would close the Chuckawalla State Prison, exit the lease for California City Correctional Facility and deactivate facilities in six other prisons," according to a DA's Office statement. "This follows the closure of Duel Vocational Institution in 2021."

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco spoke about the fatal shooting of Deputy Darnell Calhoun in Lake Elsinore on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.

Probation officials, sheriff's officials, area police chiefs and local representatives generally came to the same conclusion -- AB 109's costs outweighed any benefits.

Among the challenges was the placement of many functions previously carried out by state parole agents onto counties' probation officers.

The law established different categories of probation, including post-release community supervision, and alternatives in lieu of jail, such as "mandatory supervision," requiring local probation agents to bear heavier loads.

So-called low-level offenders, including parole violators, were also required to serve their time behind bars in local detention facilities instead of state penitentiaries. AB 109 established a de facto "3N" category for local lockups -- "non-violent, non-serious and non-sexually oriented" in their criminal conduct.

Further straining local correctional resources was voter-approved Proposition 47 in 2014, which altered sentencing guidelines, making "non- serious" drug and property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies. The new law also mandated re-sentencing individuals convicted of various felony drug and property crimes, enabling some to get out of prison and return to the communities where they offended.

Over the last decade, AB 109 offenders have consistently taken up a third or more of the space in the county's five jails. Sheriff's officials have released tens of thousands of inmates before they completed their sentences or had their cases adjudicated due to realignment-related overcrowding. A federal court decree requires the sheriff to have a bed for every inmate or free detainees to make room for incoming ones.

"With the increase of AB 109 realignment inmates, the sheriff's department has seen a continued increase of inmates requiring treatment for a serious mental illness," according to the October 2017 Public Safety Realignment & Post-Release Community Supervision Implementation Report to the board.

Shortfalls in funding for the state-mandated program have been a frequent point of contention among counties, which have to plug any gaps with local revenue when the state doesn't come through.

City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.