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The Lily's Law flaw

Policies that spring from tragedies like the Lily Burk case can have unintended consequences.

August 09, 2009|Celeste Fremon | Celeste Fremon is the author of "G-Dog and the Homeboys" and the editor of WitnessLA.com.

Now the tragedy of Lily Burk has arrived just as the worst budget crisis in California's history may force risk-averse state legislators into passing prison and parole reforms that have been recommended by every blue-ribbon governor-appointed commission in the last decade, including the 2004 commission chaired by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

Yet there are those already using the shock of Lily Burk's death to derail reforms slated to be voted on later this month. Partisan commentators shout that 27,000 prisoners, many just like Charles Samuel, the 50-year-old parolee and vagrant accused of Lily's murder, will be unleashed to victimize communities if the reforms are instituted. (By the way, nothing resembling that kind of mass release is proposed, although the figure of 27,000 has been repeated with fact-free impunity by many media outlets.) Those from the lock-'em-up faction claim that a much-needed parole restructuring -- a crucial part of the budget reform package -- would remove all legal controls on people like Samuel. Never mind that he is a product of the existing dysfunctional prison-and-parole system that has given California the highest recidivism rate in the nation.

In fact, reform advocates have suggested that if the new parole structure were already in place, the Charles Samuels of the world would have been receiving more rigorous supervision, not less. They have a point. However we might want to spin matters now, the plain truth is this: The cumulative details of Samuels' legal history alone did not raise any red flags.

So again a discussion about prisons, parole and public safety has been forced by unexpected sorrow. But let us please, this time, have the conversation only about what has actually been proved to work in those arenas -- and, for once, leave factional agendas and blinding emotion out of it.

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