With such laws as Three Strikes, California once was the nation’s pioneering tough-on-crime state. But in recent years, reforms approved by voters have made California’s approach to criminal justice more progressive, prompting critics to complain that the treatment of criminals now is dangerously too lenient.
Proposition 20 on the Nov. 3 ballot is an effort to turn back the clock, reversing California voters’ overwhelming support for two criminal reform ballot measures – Proposition 47, which in 2014 reclassified some non-violent crimes as misdemeanors, and Proposition 57, which in 2016 gave inmates convicted of certain non-violent offenses an opportunity to earn early release.
Those propositions, plus legislation that shifted some non-violent, non-sex offenders from state prisons to local jails came in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California prisons were so overcrowded that they posed constitutionally “cruel and unusual punishment.” The ruling forced California to reduce its prison population and look for alternative sentencing options.
Critics contend the resulting reforms went too far, increasing violent crimes and endangering Californians. Such excesses often are the outcome of “ballot box” law making, where political campaigns and emotions guide reforms, rather than sound analysis.
But the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California in 2018 reported that Proposition 47 did not lead to an increase in violent crimes. However, it likely affected property crimes, with larceny thefts increasing by about 9 percent compared to other states. The bulk of the new crimes were thefts from vehicles.
The PPIC also found that Proposition 47 had closed racial disparities in arrests and bookings; although, California’s prison population continues to be disproportionally minority.
The text of Proposition 20 is dense, but in a nutshell, it would allow prosecutors to charge repeat or organized theft as a felony, require probation officers to seek tougher penalties for those who violate the terms of their parole three times, and exclude those who have been convicted of domestic violence and certain nonviolent crimes from early parole consideration.
According to a ballot analysis, the fiscal impacts of Proposition 20 include: Increasing state and local correctional costs in the tens of millions of dollars annually, primarily as a result of increases in county jail population and levels of community supervision; and increasing by several millions of dollars annual state and local court-related costs. Proposition opponents also note that it would remove the incentives for inmates to modify their behavior and seek rehabilitation by limiting opportunities for early release.
With the coronavirus pandemic carving a massive hole in state and local budgets, sending government agencies scrambling to fund basic public services, voters should not support a proposal to once again swell prison populations and increase costs.
As the nation’s attention has focused in the wake of the George Floyd death on criminal justice reform and the equal treatment of all people, now also is not the time to swing the pendulum back to a tough-on-crime era through even more “ballot box” law making. If earlier reforms need to be reversed, let a more deliberate and analytic legislative process drive the effort, rather than yet another political campaign. Vote NO on Proposition 20.
Proposition 25, a criminal justice referendum on the November ballot, is confusing more for its allies than from what it is asking voters to do – affirm a bill passed by the Legislature in 2018 to eliminate cash bail. The campaign is financed primarily by the bail bond industry.
Acting on the advice of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, legislators ended a rigid system of cash bail and replaced it with one that would give judges the right to determine whether someone who is arrested should be kept behind bars based on the “risk” they are deemed to pose to themselves or others.
The rationale was that a cash bail system punishes poor people charged with non-violent or minor crimes, who can’t afford to pay bail, while more wealthy people charged with more serious, violent crimes can go free awaiting trial simply because they can afford to pay the bail. Allowing judges to assess defendants’ risks, rather than the size of their wallets seemed more equitable. The bail bond industry, which stands to lose a lot of money if the old system is eliminated, quickly launched this referendum campaign to stall enactment of the law.
Oddly, some civil libertarian groups have sided with the bail bonds industry, claiming judges could abuse their authority and act in arbitrary ways that would be worse than the existing bail bond system, which is plagued by accusations of systemic racial, gender and socioeconomic disparities.
Trust, but verify, as former President Ronald Reagan said about his dealings with the old Soviet Union. Trust that the judges we elected will act in an honorable, fair manner in assessing defendants’ risks, but verify that they are doing so. Vote YES on Proposition 25.