A deadly drunk driver was sentenced to a year in jail; 23 days later, he was free

Michelle McNeley was on her morning break at work when a text message reduced her to tears: The drunk driver who’d killed her son had been released from jail.

The text was a victim notification from a service called VINE telling her that Jesus Arias was freed just 23 days into his one-year sentence.

Arias was driving drunk with his two children in the car when he ran over Kyle McNeley, who was in a wheelchair and crossing Bellflower Boulevard at Harvey Way around 8 p.m. on March 28, according to authorities.

Earlier this year, Arias pleaded no contest to driving with a 0.08% blood-alcohol level causing injury, hit-and-run driving resulting in death and child abuse under circumstances likely to cause death. That day, Jan. 7,  he was handcuffed in a Long Beach courtroom and taken to the Los Angeles County Jail. On Jan. 30, he was released.

Michelle McNeley said she and her husband had been warned by prosecutors that Arias likely wouldn’t serve his entire jail sentence because of overcrowding, but she was expecting something more like six months, not a few weeks. Prosecutors also warned them it would be up to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, when exactly Arias would be freed.

From left to right, Karie, Kyle and Kelsie McNeley. Photo courtesy of the McNeley family.

Sheriff’s officials would not comment specifically on Arias’ case, but a spokesperson said the department releases some inmates early to lower the jail population. In cases like this, they weigh the person’s conviction and charges to help them decide who’s freed.

“Inmates being released early is a combination of jail over-crowding and public safety,” the department said. “It’s a delicate balance and is reviewed continuously.”

Early release is not uncommon in California because of several criminal justice reforms including Public Safety Realignment. The sweeping change signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 moved the responsibility of low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails. The low-level offenders include what are known as the “triple-non’s: non-serious, non-violent, non-sex” offenders, according to Robert Weisberg, faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, who has studied jail realignment extensively.

Non-intentional, even if culpable, killing is considered a triple-non, he said. Weisberg speculated the sheriff’s department could’ve looked at Arias’ sentence, saw that it was one year—a relatively short term—and decided they needed to make room for more dangerous inmates.

“The prosecutor, for reasons I don’t know, seemed lenient, and then the system provided leniency,” Weisberg said. “It was a perfect storm of sorts, a of confluence of things, that ended up in his favor.”

A witness previously told the Long Beach Post that Kyle McNeley was crossing against a red light when Arias hit him. Kyle McNeley used the wheelchair because of a stroke he suffered years earlier, according to his family. He usually would use his foot to push himself backward in the chair to get around.

The District Attorney’s office declined to comment on Arias’ sentence but highlighted that it included five years of probation, a six-month DUI class, a morgue visit, 52 weeks of child abuse counseling and a Watson advisement, which means Arias can be charged with murder if he drives under the influence and kills someone again.

“So what? You get a free pass the first time you kill someone?” Michelle McNeley said of the advisement. “I hope and pray that he never does this again. I’m so thankful his kids didn’t get hurt.”

Phone calls and messages to Arias’ lawyer, Frank Sundstedt, were not returned. And Arias could not be reached this week at an address connected to him in public records.

While the McNeley family was initially relieved the case didn’t end up in a lengthy trial, they now feel the penalty for Arias wasn’t enough.

“It’s an insult to Kyle’s life,” Michelle McNeley said.

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Valerie Osier is a breaking news and crime reporter for the Long Beach Post. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from Cal State University, Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband, Steven, and her cat/child, Jones.
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