There’s a tendency of a new political majority taking office to think it’s got all the answers, and that it doesn’t have to listen to the good ideas of the previous political regime.
The result of such thinking is that they might go overboard with their agenda to the detriment of more balanced legislation that’s good for constituents from both parties.
In the state Senate, where Democrats in November finally wrested control of the Legislature’s upper house from Republicans, that might be happening with their efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
We’ve supported systemic reforms, most backed by the new Democratic majority, that reduce discrimination in the system, particularly against indigent defendants and minorities.
Among them have been support for reducing the state’s reliance on cash bail, raising the age of criminal responsibility so that teenagers don’t serve prison time with adults, making the pre-trial criminal discovery process more fair, reducing the use of solitary confinement, requiring the use of videotapes to record interrogations in order to curb false confessions, adding more transparency to grand jury proceedings, requiring the release of misconduct reports involving police, and restoring the right to vote for prisoners who’ve been released on parole.
These changes will make our justice system more fair and equitable to those caught up in the system while also protecting public safety and taxpayers.
But we’ve been opposed to other legislation that we thought errs too far on the side of criminals and against taxpayers and the public, such as the creation of a redundant and unnecessary commission to review allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, providing free college classes and higher in-prison wages for inmates, granting driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally, the permanent sealing of criminal records for certain crimes, and allowing police to withhold arrest reports and suspect mugshots from the public.
Democrats have also recently supported legislation to reduce the sentences for misdemeanors to help undocumented immigrants avoid deportation and to give inmates over the age of 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison easier access to parole.
How far is too far?
To help restore some balance, Democrats should consider a new package of bills presented by Senate Republicans.
One bill (S1995) would ensure that murderers not benefit from their old age by requiring that first-degree murder carry a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Another bill (S357) from state Sen. James Tedisco would expand life without parole to persistent violent felony offenders upon conviction of a third violent felony charge.
Other bills (S1410 and S4127) would give victims more say in the parole decision by giving weight to their viewpoints and ensure that parole boards review recordings of victim impact statements presented at sentencings.
Yet another bill (S5320) to strengthen protections for victims would require parole board decisions to release inmates be unanimous.
Other proposed protections for victims include extending the time for which certain violent felons could become eligible for parole and requiring registration of violent felony offenders, similar to the sex crime registry.
These proposals address legitimate safety concerns and strengthen, rather than weaken, public protection against people convicted of violent crimes.
Democrats now in charge of the state Legislature need to make sure they don’t let their political agenda blind them to good legislation from Republicans just because it came from the other side of the aisle.