By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
He puts another inmate on the phone — Benjamin Tatum, 53, a soft-spoken man who has served 17 years of a 16-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. Tatum says he killed a man he thought was about to pull a gun. He talks about his Lutheran upbringing, his preincarceration work as a journeyman plumber. Tatum’s been rejected three times for parole.
“Did you take down his story?” Ali asks. But violent offenders aren’t eligible for early release, even assuming Schwarzenegger’s controversial idea is approved by the Legislature. Ali argues, “He’s served two decades, done counseling, educational and vocational training and mentors young students.”
California is deeply divided on early release. Advocates insist it would apply only to nonviolent illegal immigrants (who’d theoretically be deported), nonviolent drug users and other low-level offenders. Critics, including gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Jerry Brown, point out that some of these prisoners are violent thugs and rapists, who got plea bargains, and thus look much more benign on paper. He recently said that after release, most of them “commit more crimes, and a vast majority are back in prison.”
But writer Celeste Fremon of witnessla.com has a different take and is challenging news reports that suggest 27,000 inmates would get out. “We’re only talking about 6,300 low-risk inmates,” Fremon argues. “A certain segment are elderly and ill. Rather than caring for them in prison, at a cost of up to $100,000, we can do it cheaper on the outside.” That scenario faces worsening prospects, after Bass and the Assembly — worried about voter backlash — balked at the state Senate’s early release plan.
L.A. became the epicenter of this debate after the tragic killing of 17-year-old Lily Burk by a drug felon and home-invasion robber violating his parole.
Former Daily News editor Ron Kaye, now a civic activist at ronkayela.com, tells L.A. Weekly, “I’ve encountered community activists — one of whom is a probation officer — whose point is that many people who have nonviolent offenses engaged in violent crime but were pleaded out. They wound up with drug- or nonviolent charges despite what may be a great deal of violence in their lifetimes.”
But Kaye agrees that Najee Ali “is not likely to get into real trouble again, from what I know of him. He was the guy who drove people like Bill Bratton crazy.”
Defense attorney Willoughby says Ali’s incarceration has hurt civic life in L.A.’s urban core. “For a long time, I wondered how he got so much press,” Willoughby says. “That was a curiosity to a lot of people. But truthfully, since he’s been gone, there’s been no true advocacy.”