Mathis hosts public safety forum

Devon Mathis hosted Tulare County public safety officials. Martin Velasco-Ramos/Valley Voice

On September 27th, Assemblyman Devon Mathis held a public safety forum in the Visalia Veterans Memorial Building. Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, and Visalia Chief of Police Jason Salazar were on the panel addressing concerns surrounding new legislation and current efforts to ensure public safety.

The meeting was held as a response to growing concerns from the public regarding questionable inmate releases. The panel saw it as an opportunity to explain these incidents and address any potential concerns about current and upcoming legislation.


Legislation to Watch

SB 1437 (Accomplice Murder Charges): SB 1437 was cited by the panel as a bill to watch because it affects the prosecution of accomplices in murder crimes. The current state of the bill keeps those who participate in a crime that results in murder responsible and liable with a possible murder charge. According to the panel, if this new bill passes prosecutors will no longer be able to pursue murder charges against criminals who participated in the crime. However, supporters of SB 1437 claim that the current state of the bill can be applied unfairly and that this new version will help prevent long sentencing for people who did not commit murder. SB 1437 was enrolled on September 5th 2018 and has been sent to the Governor’s desk for signing.


Newly Passed Legislation

SB 10 (Eliminating Bail): The bail system as we know is being replaced with pre-trial risk assessment. Our current cash bail system came into question because it disproportionately affects minorities and allows anyone (despite their risk to the public) to buy their way out of jail. In theory, the new system will prevent high-risk criminals from returning to the streets, while reducing jail population by releasing low- or medium-risk criminals.

However, what concerns people like Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, is that this new pre-trial risk assessment system may cause more damage than good. “I can tell you, criminals are very good at lying and they can lie well to someone who’s doing a risk assessment…That means we’re potentially releasing people into the community with no motive to return back to the court system.” Sheriff Boudreaux also mentioned that eliminating the bail system removes the agency’s ability to hit drug dealers where it hurts most: their wallets. “We want to get into their bank accounts. We want to find where their money is. That impacts the drug dealers more than taking the drugs themselves…The system wasn’t broke. Now it’s broke.”

Another frustration for the panel regarding this bill is that logistically they don’t have the resources to vet every single criminal efficiently. The state may have mandated this new system, but it did not provide the agencies with funding. As a result, local government and law enforcement will likely have to pay for it.

The state also did not provide a risk assessment program to help agencies make the transition, so as of now risk assessments are being done through probation in the jail system. Each inmate receives a one-hour risk assessment and, according to Sheriff Boudreaux, on a busy Friday night they book 60-100 people. “My concern is that we make one mistake, we don’t have enough people to do it and we push someone out. It’s not safe. It’s not good for the community.”


AB 1810 (Mental Health Diversion): This bill was created to keep low-level offenders with mental illness out of the criminal justice system. According to the safety panel, jail systems are quickly becoming mental health institutions. Sixty-three percent of inmates, according to the panel, is on some sort of mental health treatment or medication. The hope of the bill was to reduce the crowding of jails and give the mentally ill a chance at healing through an 18-month treatment program before possibly being charged with a crime.

Although AB 1810 had good intentions at solving a major problem in our justice system, it may have opened a loophole for criminals to exploit. Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, believes this new law may allow criminals to avoid charges for serious crimes. He claimed that regardless of the crime, a defendant could walk away free of charges as long as a medical professional deemed the defendant mentally ill, capable of rehabilitation, and able to pay for the treatment themselves.

He expressed his concern specifically when it came to AB 1810 and violent gun crimes (the new law does not prohibit criminals eligible for mental health diversion from owning or purchasing a gun). Ward explained that under the new law a mass shooter could technically buy his way into a clean record and still be able to legally own a gun as long as they fit the criteria for mental health diversion and went through the two-year treatment program.


Legislation that Died

SB 1279 (Double Base Sentence) : would have given criminals with multiple victims a “volume discount”, which would help them escape some of the consequences of their crimes. It would have cut sentencing in half for certain sex offenders, repeat offenders, and heroin traffickers.

AB 931 (Police Use-of-Force Rules) : This bill was designed to address police brutality issues by increasing the threshold for the use of deadly force. According to the safety panel, it would have tied the hands of law enforcement officials by preventing police officers from using self-defense if they believed their life was in danger.


Victories For California and Local Agencies  

AB 1065 (Organized Retail Theft): After the passing of prop 47, there has been an increase in non-violent and non-serious crimes across the state. Chief Salazar explained that property crimes in Visalia have also risen. AB 1065 intends to alleviate this by cracking down on organized retail theft. The bill will allow chronic offenders in retail theft to be prosecuted with a felony charge. The safety panel expects this new legislation to protect small business, but said more needs to be done to prevent further victimization.

AB 1619 & AB 2302 (Sexual Assault/Abuse Statute of Limitations): The statute of limitations was extended from 3 years to 10 years, allowing victims of sexual assault more time to heal before reporting the crime. Mandated reporters will be given a period of 5 years from the date of occurrence of the offense.

Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE).: The Visalia Police Department and Tulare County Department of Mental Health are teaming up through pilot program HOPE to address the rise of homelessness. According to Chief Salazar, there has been a 900+% increase in homelessness in Visalia in the past 10 years. “Not all of the homeless issue is related to mental health, not all of it is substance abuse, but there are certainly ties between all of those we’re seeing regards to the homeless issue.” To mitigate this surge, mental health practitioners will be riding with police officers in hopes of creating workable solutions for homeless by connecting them to services such as mental health treatment.

School Shootings Drills: The Visalia Police Department is working closely with the Visalia Unified School District on planning drills for potential school shootings. Sheriff Boudreaux also mentioned an ongoing reactive campaign against threats of school shootings. They have made seven arrests this year regarding potential threats. “I think what we have to remember is never to act as if it will never happen here. We have to always be on guard, be prepared, and training…When we were kids we did the stop, drop, and roll…Now it’s time we teach our kids to run, hide, and fight.”


Closing Remarks:

The safety panel emphasized the importance that the community stay informed on current and upcoming legislation to understand the bills and some of their unintended consequences. Gang violence in the area has dropped 80% in the past 10 years it said.. The panel said they owe it to good laws in the books and cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and the court system. However, those reductions may be in jeopardy with legislation coming through.

The panel expressed its need for the public’s help by showing up at the ballot. Sheriff Boudreaux in particular highlighted the community’s ability to come together and solve problems.

“We know there are problems in the future, but we’ve had problems in the past too that we’ve been able to overcome and be successful at. I think that if we come together as partners and what I mean by that is community, our churches, our schools, our educators, our law enforcement partners, it doesn’t matter what walk of life, or what business, or what social status you have…that if we want better lives for our children the problems of the future are going to be ours. So we have to be prepare for that. We have to pay attention to what Sacramento is doing, we have to support our assemblyman, and most importantly we have to support each other.”

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