How politics is shaping, shadowing — and distorting — the Sacramento mass shooting – San Francisco Chronicle

And one mass shooting — two months before Election Day.

It all adds up to a highly combustible — and often misleading — battle over the politics of criminal justice reform in California at a time when concerns about crime are rising, even if the number of actual crimes aren’t in some places.

“The cheap, easy political thing to do is to say ‘Lock them up and throw away the key,’” Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, said Wednesday during a press conference promoting policies on how to help people before they commit crimes.“You get a headline. It makes you feel good for a little bit. But that hasn’t worked.”

“Decades of tough-on-crime policies created the situation that we’re in today with the mass incarceration of people — (mostly) people of color and working class communities,” Santiago said.

But that hasn’t stopped conservatives mostly from reaching for the cheap, easy headline two months before the June 7 California primary. Here are some other ways that politics is shaping and shadowing the shooting:

Speaking too soon: Even though investigators are still gathering evidence, the California Republican Party described Sunday’s mass shooting that killed six and wounded 12 in downtown Sacramento — just blocks from the state Capitol — as “looking more and more like mass murder by an individual with an extensive criminal history across California.”

That’s not what Sacramento police are saying.

Investigators said Wednesday that the shooting was gang-related, and that they were seeking at least five people who fired guns during the shooting.

But that hasn’t stopped others from trying to pin the blame on what Republicans say are holes in the criminal justice system.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, the top Republican in the Assembly, pointed to how one of the three men arrested in connection with the shooting, Smiley Martin, 27 — the brother of the first man arrested on Monday, 26-year-old Dandrae Martin — had been serving a 10-year sentence in state prison that was handed down in January 2018. Smiley Martin, who pleaded guilty to two felony assault charges, was released after pre- and post-sentencing credits were applied, according to the state parole board, a practice that corrections officials do not consider “early release” as Gallagher and others have suggested.

“This was a violent felon with a long rap sheet who should have been in prison. If he was, this tragedy might have been avoided,” Gallagher said Tuesday.

Given the evidence released publicly by investigators as of Wednesday afternoon — a day after Gallagher made that statement — it’s impossible to definitely pin the tragedy on any one person.

Then again, as Santiago said, it’s easier to grab a cheap headline rather than wait for definitive proof. Especially two months from Election Day.

When parole isn’t parole: The shooting is already turning the spotlight onto — and will likely increase the name recognition of — Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a Republican-turned-independent who is running for attorney general against two Republicans and Democrat Attorney General Rob Bonta.

Schubert’s office wrote a letter to the Board of Parole Hearings last year urging it not to release Smiley Martin. It pointed to his rap sheet that stretched back nine years and said, “he has no respect for others, for law enforcement or for the law. If he is released early, he will continue to break the law.”

The California Republican Party, in a press release Tuesday, characterized this as Smiley Martin being “let out of state prison early by (Democrat Gov. Gavin) Newsom’s parole board, over the strenuous documented objections of the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.”

The state GOP wondered if Newsom will “condemn his appointees who have blood on their hands, as do those who voted for and promoted policies that resulted in this nationally reported act of senseless violence.”

Maybe Newsom would condemn the state parole board — if it had let Smiley Martin out on parole. But it didn’t.

The parole board denied his release last May. He was cut loose in February on probation, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Officials said he was released after amassing pre-sentencing credits of 508 days and the application of post sentencing credits for good conduct.

Besides, it is not as though California’s parole board is a soft touch. The Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates for criminal justice reform, said only 18% of parole hearings resulted in the parole being granted between 2009-2016, one of the lowest marks in the nation. The organization gave California’s parole release system an “F” — its lowest grade in 2019, its most recent rating.

Blaming Proposition 57: In 2016, 64% of California voters supported Proposition 57, a ballot measure that enabled prisoners to be eligible to be considered for parole once they have served their sentence for a nonviolent felony. Two years ago, 62% of voters rejected Proposition 20, which would have gutted key provisions of Prop. 57 and Prop. 47, another reform measure loathed by Republicans.

Nevertheless, Schubert has made Proposition 57 a centerpiece of her campaign. While she has been quick to offer support for the victims of Sunday’s shooting and has not commented on the details of the active and fast-moving case, she has used her moment in the spotlight to talk about how the measure “allows people to get out sooner,” as she told radio station KMJ this week.

“If you start letting dangerous people out of prison early, without adequate rehabilitation, that is a recipe for disaster,” Schubert told the station.

Keep in mind: Proposition 57 is focused on nonviolent offenders. The state Supreme Court even ruled earlier this year that it cannot be applied to violent criminals.

Solutions beyond jail: Not everyone is looking to throw away the key. On Wednesday, Santiago, the Los Angeles legislator, was among a group of state legislators, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and criminal justice advocates including Californians for Safety and Justice, announcing their support for a proposed $3 billion package of statewide programs aimed at aiding victims and addressing the root causes of crime.

The ideas include $210 million for victims services and $200 million to help people exiting the prison system so they don’t become repeat offenders.

Carlos Marquez, executive director of the Executive Director of ACLU California Action, said the package of proposed services reminded him of something that the Rev. Desmond Tutu, the South African human rights activist once said.

“There comes a point when we need to stop pulling people out of the river and we need to go upstream and find out why they’re being thrown in the river in the first place,” Marquez said.

Statistics versus feelings: Crime will continue to be a dominant theme in California’s campaigns this year for a simple reason: Voters are concerned about it in their neighborhoods.

While statistics show that robbery and rape decreased in the state in 2020, homicides spiked by 30% and aggravated assaults increased 7.5%, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

In four of the state’s biggest cities — San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego, violent crime and property crime increased in 2020, according to preliminary figures.

But while other statistics show crime has decreased, perhaps the most important stat — politically — is what another PPIC poll showed: 65% of voters say crime and violence is a problem in their neighborhood.

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli