The district attorney vs. Prop. 47

By BEN BOYCHUK / Staff Columnist

Mike Ramos is frustrated, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at him.

The San Bernardino County district attorney is affable and relaxed in person, exactly what one would expect of a politician who just began his fourth term and has an eye on the state attorney general’s office. But he knew his job wouldn’t be easy when he took it.

I sat down with him in his downtown San Bernardino office for about an hour last week to discuss the sources of his frustration: Assembly Bill 109 and Proposition 47.

AB109 is the Public Safety Realignment Act. In 2011, on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering California to ease its prison overcrowding by upwards of 40,000 prisoners, the state Legislature passed the law shifting most “non-violent, non-serious, nonsexual” felons from the packed state prison to the marginally less packed county jails.

Prop. 47, which the voters in their wisdom passed in November, reclassified several felonies – including a number of drug and property crimes – as misdemeanors. Proponents sold the measure as a way to ensure murderers, rapists and child molesters remained behind bars. But they didn’t have much to say about their initiative’s other consequences.

Ramos was more than happy to explain them to me.

“AB109 shifted the state’s burden without adding resources to the counties,” he explained. Thousands of felons wound up in the county’s jails. Thousands more ended up in the county’s probation system.

The results were predictable. Police and prosecutors shifted most of their attention to violent crimes, making property crime much less of a priority. Burglaries, car thefts, grand thefts and petty thefts spiked. No surprise there.

I told the D.A. about my own experience two years ago, when a young punk snatched my laptop from under my fingers as I was working in a coffee shop. He ran outside to a waiting car with three others inside.

Because I wasn’t actually holding the computer, it was “grand theft from a person,” a property offense, not robbery, a violent one. Only one member of the crew – a minor – spent any time behind bars.

Ramos could only offer his sympathies. “It’s a sad situation,” he said. “Unless you have good intervention, you’ll have an uptick in property crimes.”

Even so, the D.A. told me, his office and local law enforcement had begun to get their arms around AB109 within the last year. Then along came Prop. 47, which made a bad situation worse.

“I call it a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card,” Mr. Ramos said.

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