Protecting Our Elders: New Law May Lighten Sentences for Elder Abuse

Eric Hovatter
By Eric Hovatter March 15, 2012 12:00

Changes in California law will likely mean lighter sentences for those convicted of felony elder abuse and less stringent supervision after time has been served.

Before last October, many such swindlers and con artists found guilty of preying on the elderly would have served time in state prison. But as a result of a new Realignment law, such felons will now serve their time, up to six years, in county jail. Under the new rules, prison time is reserved for those found guilty of violent crimes, serious felonies or sex offenses.

Those convicted of elder abuse and other crimes not in the above categories may split their “local prison” commitment into actual time in custody and mandatory supervision. Or, they could conceivably serve all their time in jail and be released with no supervision at all.

Previously, many defendants released from prison were put on parole. Now, these lower-grade felons will probably be supervised by the county Probation Department – if supervision is part of their sentences.

These significant changes are in their infancy, and the future landscape of criminal prosecution remains to be seen.

Realignment also will affect prosecution of crimes against the elderly. Violent crimes against seniors will still carry possible state prison terms. But in most cases, financial elder abuse will not carry a prison sentence. How a crime is charged will now take on added significance, since it could mean the difference between serving time in prison or at a local jail.

Not all the news relating to elder abuse prosecution has been bad.

Assembly Bill 354, which took effect in January, makes anyone convicted of elder or dependent adult financial abuse liable for restitution of twice the value of property stolen.

And, despite Realignment, a major financial elder abuse case in Tuolumne County recently resulted in a state prison term. The case involved theft of more than $125,000 from a local woman’s account by the bank’s assistant manager. The thefts took place over 15 months, during which the employee withdrew about $85,000 illegally in the victim’s name.

The employee then closed the account, and wrote a series of ever-decreasing cashier’s checks to the victim’s name accompanied by larger cash withdrawals until the entire account was drained.  Needless to say, these cashier’s checks and cash never made it to the victim. Her daughter discovered the theft when she visited Tuolumne County to put her mother’s financial affairs in order.

The defendant was charged with various crimes, including financial elder abuse, identity theft and forgery. She was also charged with an enhancement under the White Collar Crime Statute, which requires those found guilty of stealing larger amounts of money to serve more time in prison (or, under Realignment, more jail time).

The defendant was convicted and sentenced to six years in state prison. It should be noted that the bank involved was very helpful in assisting with prosecution, and reimbursed the victim for all the stolen money.

But there’s an important lesson here: Be vigilant with your money, or your loved one’s money, no matter where it is.

Hovatter is a deputy district attorney for Tuolumne County.

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Eric Hovatter
By Eric Hovatter March 15, 2012 12:00