Bonta floats changing definition of violent crime

California Attorney General Rob Bonta is interviewed at the CalMatters offices in Sacramento on Oct. 11, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

If this week is any indication, Attorney General Rob Bonta is on a mission.

On Wednesday, he announced that his office would conduct an independent investigation into last year’s redistricting in the city of Los Angeles following the explosive publication of a secretly recorded meeting in which three city council members and an influential labor leader could be heard making racist comments, insulting their colleagues and plotting how to draw city council district boundaries to consolidate Latino political power.

  • Bonta said in a statement: “The decennial redistricting process is foundational for our democracy and for the ability of our communities to make their voices heard — and it must be above reproach. The leaked audio has cast doubt on a cornerstone of our political processes for Los Angeles.”
  • Nury Martinez, who stepped down as council president on Monday, announced her resignation Wednesday. Gov. Gavin Newsom applauded the move, but stopped short of calling on Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, the other council members present at the meeting, to resign. The governor’s reticence marks a sharp departure from other top Democratic officials: President Joe Biden on Tuesday said all three council members should step down.

Also Wednesday, Bonta issued an update on his office’s efforts to limit the spread of fentanyl, a super-powerful synthetic opioid largely responsible for record-high fatal overdoses in California. Since April 2021, Bonta said, his office has seized more than 4 million fentanyl pills and nearly 900 pounds of fentanyl powder and performed more than 200 arrests.

  • The update may have also served as an implicit clapback at Nathan Hochman, the Republican former federal prosecutor running against Bonta for attorney general. Hochman has repeatedly slammed his Democratic opponent for failing to act aggressively on fentanyl, including in a campaign ad that says California has seen a 2,100% uptick since 2016 in the number of residents under age 24 dying from fentanyl poisoning.

Also this week, Bonta unveiled guidance for local governments considering housing developments in areas of high wildfire risk, waded into housing and development battles in Marin County and Southwest Fresno and announced that California’s seasonal task force combating illegal cannabis cultivation would transition to year-round enforcement.

If it sounds like Bonta — who was appointed attorney general by Newsom in March 2021 — has broadened the scope and emphasis of the Department of Justice, you’d be right.

In an hour-long interview with CalMatters, Bonta said he’s “never, ever” followed the advice he received early in his political career to focus on just a few signature issues. For other takeaways from the interview — including Bonta’s stances on the death penalty and cash bail, and what he plans to do after lawmakers killed a bill he sponsored in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision expanding gun rights — check out this comprehensive breakdown from CalMatters’ Ben Christopher.

  • Something to keep an eye on: Whether Bonta will push for changes to Proposition 57, approved by California voters in 2016, that allows certain prison inmates to earn good conduct credits at a faster rate and narrowed the number of crimes considered as “violent” felonies, among other things.
  • Prop. 57 reentered the headlines following an April gang shootout in Sacramento that left six dead and 12 injured. It later emerged that Smiley Martin, one of the suspects charged with murder in the case, had spent just four years in prison despite a 10-year sentence — partially because the crimes of which he was convicted, including domestic violence and assault likely to cause great bodily injury, are considered “nonviolent” under California penal code.
  • Bonta told CalMatters: “Domestic violence, human trafficking, rape of an unconscious person — all of those should be discussed and potentially changed under whatever the appropriate means is for Prop. 57. I think if people are asked … ‘Is this a violent crime? Or is it not a violent crime?’ I think people will say, ‘It’s a violent crime,’ so I think those should be considered for change.”

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