Cutting federal prison sentences would increase crime – it's already happening in California

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I spent 26 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, retiring in 2015 as a detective. To this day, I’m saddened when I think of the many innocent victims of the rampant violence and crime so pervasive during the crack epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1990s.

In 1992, over 140 people were murdered in my police precinct in South Central Los Angeles. Twenty years later, the toll (though still tragic) had fallen by 80 percent, thanks to tough laws that locked up the worst criminals.

Good policing, tough state and federal sanctions for offenders, and having secure places to keep the bad guys cleaned up that neighborhood and hundreds like it across the country.

But sadly, many members of Congress have developed collective amnesia about the bad old days of rampant crime that plagued Los Angeles and far too many other U.S. cities.

These well-intentioned but deeply misguided lawmakers want to shorten federal prison sentences for dangerous repeat offenders – both violent criminals and drug traffickers.

By reducing the penalties for serious crimes and putting criminals back on the streets sooner, members of the House and Senate supporting shorter sentences would make our communities more dangerous and inevitably increase the number of crime victims – including those seriously injured and killed.

All the while, heroin, its deadly cousin fentanyl, and other dangerous drugs take more lives each year than the number of U.S. military service members who were killed during the war in Vietnam.

Decades ago – when do-gooder lawmakers passed weak laws and soft-on-crime judges released violent, dope-peddling criminals back onto the streets – everyday citizens were rightly outraged that their communities were being used as guinea pigs for social justice causes.

In my career as a Los Angeles police detective, I saw hundreds of convicted criminals released after months, weeks or sometimes even just a few days thanks to programs like early release and judicial leniency.

Unsurprisingly, many – if not most – of the released convicts did not become law-abiding citizens, but instead returned to a life of crime. The drug dealers sold their poisonous wares to desperate addicts. Some former prisoners gunned down innocents and each other in violent turf wars.

Eventually, voters and lawmakers wised up and cracked down – taking repeat offenders off the street for good. Crime fell dramatically and neighborhoods that were no-go-zones are now flourishing.

Lulled into complacency about crime, California’s leaders have undone years of progress on public safety. With their hands tied, cops are now arresting fewer criminals because they know that perpetrators won’t see any jail time. Felony arrests are down 30 percent in California since 2014, when tough sentences were rolled back.

Now, dangerous repeat offenders – once locked up or “incapacitated” in state prisons – roam the streets of California. In Los Angeles County, fully 40 percent of the offenders arrested and prosecuted under the new, more lenient rules have been subsequently arrested at least twice – with 32 percent of the repeat offenders charged with serious felonies.

Since 2011 – when California first began its soft-on-crime policy by releasing so-called “low-level offenders” – violent crime has risen 15 percent and is getting worse, rising 18 percent in just the last four years when the state accelerated handing out what amounts to “get-out-jail-free cards.”

While felony arrests for sex offenses have fallen by 26 percent, rape is up an alarming 92 percent in the last seven years.

Behind all these statistics there are crime victims whose lives were changed permanently – and who lost their lives in the worst cases. And each of the crime victims had loved ones whose lives were also affected by the actions of criminals.

Why, then, are some lawmakers more concerned with pushing through legislation that would reward criminals (including noncitizens)? Bills before Congress would give dangerous drug dealers and violent criminals lighter federal prison sentences, allow some to serve sentences under house arrest in their own homes, and shorten sentences of prisoners who participate in prison programs.

Meaningless and undefined terms like “evidence-based recidivism reduction programs” or participation in “productive activities” – which could mean almost anything, including dog grooming – qualifies a prisoner for time off under bills before the U.S. House and Senate.

The bills before Congress do not even require research on the effectiveness of reduced prison sentences or data collection on what happens to prisoners released early. So there are no reasonable metrics for the success of these soft-on-crime programs.

The First Step Act, which passed the House and is now before the Senate, gives participating prisoners one day off for every three days of “successful participation.”

A prisoner taking full advantage could cut a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking in half, to less than five years.

The sentencing bill even repeals mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers who smuggle drugs into the U.S. by boat or submarine, nicknamed the “Scarface” provision. These mostly foreign narco-traffickers have never been eligible for leniency before. In a four-month span last year, the Coast Guard seized 18 tons of cocaine from such vessels, worth over $500 million.

Furthermore, a provision in the federal sentencing bill rewards serious criminals for getting off easy for past crimes. Because some states like California have lessened penalties for crimes or have afforded weak-on-crime judges too much leeway, the current legislation before the Senate requires that the offender have been “imprisoned” for an offense for more than 12 months – instead of convicted of a crime carrying a maximum penalty – to be considered a serious offender.

In other words, a convicted rapist who got six months in jail for his crime would not be considered a serious, repeat offender if he were prosecuted for a future crime simply because he won the judge lottery and did not spend more than 12 months in prison.

Justice requires fair treatment under the law, but it also means that the innocent people and their property are safe and secure – that our streets are safe, and that our homes are a refuge. As California illustrates, coddling criminals does not reduce crime or enhance public safety.