O.C. Sheriff's Department comments on Gov. Jerry Brown's sentence commutations


Editor’s note: The OCSD submitted this opinion piece, written by Undersheriff Don Barnes, to Behind the Badge.

Do victims have a voice in California anymore? Actions by our State Legislature and governor to “reform” our criminal justice system have many wondering whether any consequences remain for unlawful behavior.

Over the past eight years, several categories of felonies have been reduced to misdemeanors and countless offenders have had the opportunity to leave state prison with a reduced sentence.

Now, this week, the governor has announced he is commuting the life sentence of 20 individuals who had been convicted of murder.

While a commutation does not result in the automatic release of these offenders, it does present them with the opportunity to be considered for parole.

During his current time in office, Jerry Brown has issued 82 commutations, more that any governor since World War II. His record on pardons is equally startling. Brown has issued 1,100 pardons. His immediate predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, granted only 15 pardons, and Gray Davis issued none.

The governor has made it perfectly clear that he will support almost any action that results in emptying our state prisons. I question the judgment and misplaced compassion involved in making the unilateral decision to give convicted murders a path to early release.

Forgiveness and redemption are hallmarks of a compassionate and just society. No person is irredeemable and all should be afforded the opportunity to atone for their transgressions. However, forgiveness and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Even those forgiven must face the consequences of their egregious acts.

The act of murder is a crime of great finality. When one chooses to take a life, they are making an irreversible decision that forever impacts the victim and their families. Such violence must face a penalty of great weight.

The purpose of a life sentence without parole or the death penalty is to keep dangerous people behind bars, provide justice for the victims, and set a standard in our community that acts of violence will not be tolerated.

The Governor’s actions give the impression that victims no longer matter, lives feloniously taken are inconsequential, and that criminals have an unlimited supply of “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.

There is an appropriate balance between offering those who commit crimes a second chance and protecting our community from offenders. When the new governor and Legislature begin their terms of office in January 2019, I encourage the pursuit of thoughtful criminal justice reform that includes accountability, reasonableness, and sound public policy that doesn’t exclude those victims who lost their lives.

Sadly, these victims will never receive a commutation to the death sentence they undeservedly received.