California crime bills stir controversy as they work their way through legislature

Two companion California crime bills, working their way through the legislature, caused a powerful backlash from a coalition of organizations looking out for the rights of theft victims, especially when violence comes into play. 

While some say the bills try to put more minor crimes in perspective, others say perspective depends on whether you are the criminal or the victim.

Under current law, a video showing three men knocking down and robbing a man in a laundry, is a felony. But, if Senate Bills 81 and 82 are passed and signed by California's governor, many robberies would be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, if no weapon was used and the victim was not seriously injured.

It will also allow for the automatic reduction of a felony to a misdemeanor for a person already sentenced going back for years unless victims testify again.

"Let me tell you, many people still don't know that there's an SB 82 out there," said Carl Chan of the Oakland Chinese Chamber of Commerce, who opposes it.

In fact, a coalition of law enforcement, civic, and victims right advocates, who say crimes are skyrocketing, say SB 82 is bad medicine at this time.

"As a matter of fact, in our opinion, it is a crime in and of itself," said Rev. Walter Hoye of the Frederick Douglass Foundation.

"Women, minorities and senior citizens are the most vulnerable under SB 82, which also has not considered psychological impact to the victims," said Frank Lee of the Organization for Justice & Equality. 

"And, as we all know, there's been a surge of violent attacks and robberies targeting elderly Asian victims and that's ballooning out of control in the Bay Area," said Annie Esposito of Asian American Prosecutors Association.

Proponents say, four out of five California prisoners are serving enhanced sentences that require extra prison time; sometimes longer than the crime itself. Proponents also say such enhanced sentences are applied disproportionately to people of color or disabled.

But, the fact is people of color, disabled and elderly are often victims too. "Senate Bill 82 will encourage more robberies to occur and create a dangerous environment that puts all of California in danger," said Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence.

"Ask the victim of a violent crime who has had themselves put in fear of their life, if they consider robbery to be petty," said Verne Pierson of the California District Attorney's Association.

"Can you imagine your mother, your sister, your brother, your aunt, your uncle, your child or yourself having to go through that and a state or an elected official telling you that that's non-violent?" said Patricia Wenskunas of Crime Survivors. Inc.

The bill's author, Berkeley state Senator Nancy Skinner, said, "SB 82 would not result in lesser or different treatment of a violent crime or a hate crime. The purpose of SB 82 is simple: to clarify state law so that nonviolent cases of theft are not charged as violent felonies."