By Ron Cottingham
I’ve been in law enforcement in San Diego for nearly 40 years. As a lieutenant in the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, I’ve served in every capacity, including patrol, investigations, detention and specialized investigations. Also, for over nine years I have been representing nearly 64,000 front-line public safety members as president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC).
This November, California voters have some very difficult decisions to make. In addition to choosing our commander-in-chief, there are many hotly contested legislative races and 11 initiatives that must be decided.
As a public safety member of nearly four decades, there is an issue of critical importance to not only members of my profession, but California citizens in general: Proposition 36, which will greatly amend California’s “three strikes” law. As someone who has spent his career in law enforcement, I urge you to vote “no” on Proposition 36.
California’s “three strikes” law was overwhelmingly voted into law by 72 percent of voters in 1994. That over two-thirds of voters could agree on such a difficult issue shows true depth of conviction among our citizens.
And the law is working. Almost immediately after taking effect, the rate of serious crime dropped, and has remained low. Repeat offenders no longer cycle through our courts and jails.
We understand California’s prisons are overcrowded. It is unfortunate that some would like to rectify this by allowing dangerous felons back on our streets. It is estimated that 4,000 convicted felons serving life terms under “three strikes” could petition for a reduced sentence.
As a result of prison overcrowding, California is already under a mandated realignment program to reduce the prison population substantially in the coming years. This means lower-level offenders are being released early and probation and parole systems are becoming increasingly overburdened. Allowing these “three strikes” inmates to petition for resentencing will undoubtedly exacerbate a situation that California public safety members are already struggling to handle.
These are not criminals that have only committed nonviolent crimes. In fact, it is a requirement of the “three strikes” law that the offender has committed two serious or violent felonies. Furthermore, the third conviction is required to be a felony, not a misdemeanor or infraction. As someone who has served on the front lines of public safety in California, it is clear to me these are serious offenders with a propensity for serious crimes.
We realize there have been situations where offenders have been sentenced under “three strikes” for minor offenses. However, we must remember that district attorneys in these cases have discretion as to whether the offender poses such a danger to society that it is necessary to prosecute the crime as a “three strikes” offense. Furthermore, the judge must agree with the district attorney’s decision and the jury must convict the offender.
The argument that Proposition 36 will save California money is an unfortunate answer to our state’s dire fiscal situation. Public safety should be the first priority of government; we mustn’t use a budget shortfall to justify knee-jerk sentencing reductions. Saving a few bucks by potentially jeopardizing the safety of our neighborhoods is unacceptable. Because we know that if your families aren’t safe, nothing else matters.
There is no doubt in my mind that repeat offenders allowed out on probation can, and will, commit additional serious or violent offenses. We need look no further than the tragic deaths of four Oakland peace officers in 2009, killed by a convicted felon wanted on a no-bail warrant for a parole violation. This was the single deadliest attack on California law enforcement since 1970, committed by a violent multiple-offender with a history of battery, assault with a deadly weapon and armed robbery, among other things. It pains me to think that, had he been sentenced under the “three strikes” law, perhaps the lives of these four brave officers could have been spared and the heartache their families have endured could have been avoided.
Peace officer deaths, such as those in Oakland, are on the rise. We need every tool available to put dangerous repeat felons behind bars.
The board of directors of our organization voted overwhelmingly to oppose Proposition 36. “Three strikes” is working and Proposition 36 will only reduce the ability of judges and prosecutors to convict dangerous felons and get them off our streets once and for all.
As a matter of public safety, we urge voters to carefully consider their decision before heading to the polls this November. Vote no on Proposition 36.
Ron Cottingham is president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California. This column originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Oct. 4, 2012.
El Cerrito Patch welcomes guest columns from members of the community. Those interested in contributing can write to email@example.com. To see past guest columns, please click here.