LOS ANGELES — When prison reform bills make their way through the state Legislature, hundreds of letters pour in from inmates to nonprofits like Initiate Justice in Los Angeles.
Greg Fidell, who serves as a policy manager, reads through many of them and learns about the sentences people face for various crimes.
“This is a stack of 200 letters from people currently incarcerated. Every day we get large stacks of mail like this,” Fidell said.
One of the bills Fidell has received many letters about recently is Senate Bill 82, a controversial proposal to downgrade some felony robberies to misdemeanor charges of petty theft. Democrat Sen. Nancy Skinner of the East Bay introduced the bill.
“If somebody is stealing a purse or if somebody is stealing a cell phone, that’s different than someone who has the intent to commit a robbery, right, but the penal code doesn’t treat it that way,” Fidell said. “SB 82 is trying to restore proportionality to crimes.”
Robbery is classified as a violent offense and punishable by up to five years in prison. If the bill passes, petty theft offenders would face up to a year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both and qualify for a diversion program.
Fidell said Initiate Justice has been hearing from inmates who are carrying out lengthy prison sentences for crimes he said should have been considered less serious petty thefts. He also doesn’t believe that harsher punishments deter criminals.
“If you look at the past 30 to 40 years, this tough-on-crime era, we would be the safest nation in the world if these tough-on-crime laws were working,” Fidell said.
But former LA County Deputy District Attorney Marc Debbaudt feels very differently about SB 82. When he heard about the bill making its way through the state Legislature, he said he grew concerned that it would contribute to a surge in crime if passed.
“This is a joke. No one is afraid of a misdemeanor. Theft, if you did it once, twice, maybe even three times, was a misdemeanor. It didn’t turn into a felony unless you had three or four thefts because you continuously steal. If you stole something and it was your first-time offense, you didn’t go to prison,” Debbaudt said.
Debbaubt said the proposed reform doesn’t consider a person’s criminal history, which dictates the type of sentence prosecutors pursue.
Under SB 82, people who stole property valued at $950 or less would be charged with misdemeanor petty theft even if they use “force” or “fear” to take the property, as long as there was no weapon and they didn’t cause great bodily injury.
California’s penal code defines serious injury as including concussions, losing an organ and broken bones.
“I knock you down on the ground, but I don’t break your jaw, and you don’t crack your head open. It’s a bruise. It’s not a great bodily injury, and I didn’t use a weapon. But I scared you, and you were off-balance, and I hit you. Well, that’s now a theft because this senator clearly doesn’t care about victims,” Debbaudt said.
Debbaudt feels that SB 82’s passage would create more victims, especially when crime is on the rise across LA County.
“They don’t like that our penal code punishes criminals who do bad things. Sometimes I think these are just do-gooders who are misguided,” Debbaudt said of SB 82’s advocates. “They want to make a difference and make a better world and create a utopia, but this isn’t happening under this piece of legislation.”