In California, It’s Not Clear What is a ‘Violent’ Crime

It makes a difference, because inmates who might be released under a 2016 ballot measure must have been convicted of “nonviolent felony offenses.”

California has debated for two years what should, and should not, be a considered a “violent” crime. A 1976 list in the state penal code is a key part of determining which  prison inmates are eligible for early parole under Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2016 ballot measure, Proposition 57, the Los Angeles Times reports. A legal fight over how to interpret the ballot measure could become a potent political issue. Brown signed the law creating the original list of violent crimes during his first tour of duty as governor. It’s since been amended or expanded 38 times, the last time in 2014.

Eight specific offenses or crime categories were in the original version. Now, there are 23 crimes. The list almost doubled in size in just the five years between 1988 and 1993.  Some violent crimes are straightforward — murder, attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter, robbery, kidnapping. Some additions, like the inclusion of carjacking in 1993, were prompted by news events. Proposition 21 in 2000 removed the long-standing focus on specific kinds of robberies — those in someone’s home and involving a “deadly or dangerous weapon” — and instead made “any robbery” a violent crime. In 2006, voters added more definitions of sex crimes. Only specific circumstances in the case of rape or first-degree burglary are on the list of violent crimes. It’s doubtful that the 23 offenses cover everything the average Californian would think of as being “violent.” Brown’s 2016 ballot measure expanded parole opportunities to those serving time for a “nonviolent felony offense.” That phrase is new, and Proposition 57 placed the term in the California Constitution. It’s unclear whether “nonviolent felony offense” is just another way of saying any crime that’s not on the list of violent crimes.