A mass shooting suspect in Sacramento served his 10-year sentence in four years. Here’s why.

The debate over California’s sentencing laws and recent criminal justice reforms came to a head after the arrest of a suspect linked to the April 3 shooting in downtown Sacramento that left six people dead. and a dozen others wounded.

But the talk of reform and “reaction to crime” policies are not as straightforward as politicians make it seem, especially in the case of Smiley Martin, one of the five alleged shooters in the deadly event.

Smiley, 27, and his 26-year-old brother, Dandrae Martin, were arrested in connection with the shooting and face assault and unlawful firearms charges. Investigators are also looking for a third suspect, Mtula Payton, 27. The police have not charged anyone with homicide.

Politicians, including state lawmakers and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, have questioned why Smiley Martin was allegedly involved in the street shooting when he was sentenced to a decade in prison a few years prior.

There were two factors in Martin’s shorter-than-expected stay in prison: recent criminal justice reforms and a plea deal offered by the office of Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

A former federal prosecutor has questioned why Martin got “a good deal” on his sentencing plea, which resulted in his only violent crime being dropped. This charge may have kept him in prison longer.

Martin was sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison on domestic violence charges. He was eligible for parole consideration — and possibly early release — in early 2021. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office asked the parole board to deny early release.

In a letter to the State Parole Hearings Board, Assistant District Attorney Danielle Abildgaard called Martin an “aggressive and non-compliant individual and has absolutely no respect for his victims.”

Abildgaard wrote: “If released sooner he will continue to break the law.”

He was officially denied parole, but under state law and the terms of his deal reached by the district attorney’s office, Martin served his sentence earlier this year.

Why didn’t Martin spend 10 years in prison?

Martin’s original charges included criminal kidnapping, which is considered a violent crime under Proposition 57, a law voted in by voters in response to a 2009 federal ruling that ordered California to reduce its prison population.

The proposal has incentivized some incarcerated people to enter rehabilitation programs by giving them credits that can be applied to their sentence. Inmates can also be recognized for their good behavior.

Martin’s kidnapping charge was dropped as part of a plea deal he made in early 2018, which meant he would be considered a nonviolent offender.

Additionally, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Martin received 508 days of credit for time served as well as “a variety of additional post-conviction credits while serving his sentence.”

Under Proposition 57, Martin received enough credit for his good behavior and for completing education or rehabilitation programs to get his prison term reduced.

After his parole request was denied in 2021, he served nearly one more year and was released in February 2022.

Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Loyola Law School, questioned why Martin was given the deal “given the nature of his crime and his background.”

She says it seems contradictory for the DA’s office to give him a contract as a nonviolent offender and then later paint him as a violent criminal.

“I don’t know if there were any problems with the evidence [or] issues with the victim testifying,” she said. “But the assessment of whether someone is going to pose an unreasonable risk of violence really begins at this point.”

In a statement, Sacramento County Chief Assistant District Attorney Rod Norgaard suggested that victims’ cooperation may have been a factor in the plea deal.

“We are keenly aware of the obstacles presented in pursuing domestic violence cases, including the willingness of the victim to participate in the criminal justice process,” Norgaard wrote.

Martin’s girlfriend testified in court, but her account differed from that of another witness in the case. She told the judge that she suffered injuries to the face because she was hit with a phone that Martin’s stepmother threw at her while the two were fighting.

“Our sole purpose in this case was to hold Mr. Martin accountable for his conduct with the evidence we had. Solving the case for ten years in state prison served that purpose,” Norgaard’s statement said.

Politicized Criminal Justice Reforms

Martin’s case has intensified political rhetoric around criminal justice reforms.

The California Republican Party issued a statement falsely claiming that Martin “was released from state prison early by [Gov. Gavin] Newsom’s parole board. The parole board denied Martin’s request for early release in 2021. Instead, he served his sentence in February 2022.

Republican lawmakers have already called for tougher sentences for crimes committed with guns and a reversal of policies that could lead to early release. They sent a letter to the governor on Wednesday calling on his administration to reject a proposed rule that would increase the rate at which some inmates earn credits.

Some Democratic lawmakers have defended the laws and warned against a return to so-called “reaction on crime” policies that have led to disproportionate numbers of black and Latinos in California prisons.

“The cheap and easy political thing to do is to say ‘lock them up and throw the key away,'” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles) said last week. “But it didn’t work. … Decades of tough-on-crime policies have created the situation we find ourselves in today.

Levenson warned of what she called the “Willie Horton effect,” where policymakers rush to roll back reforms based on a violent offender.

Sam Lewis of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition said expanded rehabilitation programs under Proposition 57 have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

“Long sentences are no deterrent to crime. The programs are actually a deterrent to crime,” he said.

When inmates “start to work on themselves and make the changes they need to make, that’s what improves our public safety, not longer sentences,” he said.

Sacramento County DA Schubert — who is running for state attorney general this year — blamed Proposition 57 for “turbocharged credits” and other laws that limit certain enhancements for criminal charges, saying the policies tie prosecutors’ hands.

Last year, Newsom signed a law which raised the standard for when prosecutors can apply an enhanced sentence for gang activity. It probably wouldn’t have affected Martin’s sentence for domestic violence.

Schubert also led more than two dozen county prosecutors in a lawsuit to stop the CDCR from increasing the rate at which offenders get credits.

A public hearing on the proposed rule change takes place Thursday from 10 a.m.

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