Syndic No. 21 Cover / Theme: Social Justice ∼ Social Injustice
Syndic Literary Journal

Criminal Justice Reform: Case Study by LeRoy Chatfield

California Criminal Justice Reform

“41 Days Today”

by LeRoy Chatfield

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet and have lunch with two young men in the prime of their life.  We met at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Sacramento directly across from the State Capitol – a mutually convenient location  because they had been invited that morning to participate in a private ten minute photo-op with the newly elected governor of California.

This meeting with the Governor, as short and scripted as it was,  was critically important to the careers of both men and their new-found standing in the community.

For more than thirteen years these two young men had worked tirelessly to prove themselves, to show their worth and now today they basked in  the honor and affirmation of the their private meeting with the governor.

41 days today, one said,  I am still counting. No, said the other, I stopped counting after 80 days, and you will too. Maybe, but I am still counting each day.

Sixteen years ago as a teenager,  the one from Rodeo was convicted of murder and sentenced from 25-years to life. No matter  he did not kill,   case  closed,  the 168 year-old Felony Murder Rule permitted the prosecutor to enter a charge of murder if he was present. 

Twenty-two  years ago,  also a teenager, the one from Los Angeles was convicted and sentenced from 31 years to life for a robbery committed under the infamous and draconian three strikes initiative that ruled the California criminal justice system.

The prison gates closed after them,  the keys were thrown away and their young lives were declared over even before their teen age years were finished.  Welcome to a punitive criminal justice system fashioned by race and mass incarceration, whipped to a frenzy   by fear mongering politicians –  a hell-bent prosecutorial system that embraced  the scorched earth policy of meting out a merciless justice designed to maximize human cruelty upon its citizens. Forget our centuries old Judeo-Christian teachings and traditions, forget the goal of rehabilitation, forget the grace of redemption, and above all, forget any talk of a second chance. Welcome to Corcoran, ass wipe, your life is over!  Yes, welcome to the status quo and the social injustice of the California prison system. 

And yet . . . and yet . . .  these two young men sit with me here today in this upscale and expensive Hyatt Regency in the State Capital   41 days and 80+ days after their  release from life sentences in the California State Prison System. 

How is this possible?  Who can believe this outcome?  What happened?

Call it luck, good timing, foreordained, providential or miraculous but these are the variables that came together to make their release from prison possible.

We begin with the two teen-aged boys who became  prison inmates more than a dozen years or so ago.  Despite their life sentences, they did not give up hope of some day being released. Corcoran ass wipe or not, they did not agree with the prison guard who told them their life was over . . . there had to be a way . . .  eventually, there simply had to be one. 

Each in his own way and in his own words  faced up to the judgment of the court and took responsibility.  Yes, I am guilty;  yes, I should be punished as the result of my crime; yes, I am sorry for what I have done to another person; yes, I am resolved to prove that I am not that person who committed the crime, I am a better person; yes, I believe if I can prove  that I am that better person, I shall some day be released from prison; yes, I will earn the right to be given a second chance in life; no, I do not believe I should be locked up for the rest of my life.

 Another variable was that of a crusading San Francisco criminal justice attorney with more than a decade of experience confronting  prosecutorial  misconduct and police corruption – liberating a client from years of wrongful imprisonment, overturning a death penalty sentence engineered by a county district attorney, using a habeas to free a wrongfully convicted person and overturning a guilty verdict in a double homicide case – who was now working with a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping potentially qualified inmates  apply for sentence commutations and representing them at the necessary  parole board hearings called for that purpose.

Yet another variable that played a significant role was new legislation introduced by a state senator from Berkeley that would amend the 168 year-old Felony Murder Rule to now read  that  simply being  present when a murder was committed  would no longer generate an automatic charge of murder with a sentence of 25-years to life.  This landmark legislation – vehemently and bitterly opposed by  district attorneys –  brought into public focus the need for criminal justice reform as it relates to teen-age offenders, mass incarcerations and lifetime sentences.

The final – and most important –  variable in the release of my recent lunch mates at the Hyatt Regency was the moral determination of the longest serving governor in California’s history to override the endless do-nothing talk and  pious hand wringing   about criminal justice reform and actually do something about it! 

Taking action that  only a  strong and highly respected governor can accomplish in the final year of his term in office,  he hammered home the critical votes to pass the criminal reform legislation to amend the Felony Murder Rule while at the same time reaching deep into California’s prison system to commute the sentences of  inmates who had earned and now deserved a second chance in life.

He signed into law the new criminal reform legislation and issued more than 2,000 pardons and sentence commutations – more than all previous California governors combined in the last seventy-eight years.  His legacy of merciful justice –  belief in rehabilitation, personal redemption and that inmates have the right to earn a second chance is a landmark turning point in the history of the California criminal justice system.

And my Hyatt Regency lunch mate?  49 Days Today.

 

 

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