[Op Ed] Vote NO on Prop 20 this Fall
Proposition 20 is a measure on this November’s ballot that seeks to roll back recent criminal justice reforms in CA. The Proposition claims that these recent reforms have made our communities less safe. “The pendulum has swung too far towards leniency” in the proponents’ eyes. To be clear, California remains the epicenter of mass incarceration in the United States, which in turn is the global leader in human caging. The notion that these recent changes have made us less safe is not supported by data, but rather is a thinly veiled attempt to frighten voters into supporting this prison spending scam and revert to a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice. We urge a resounding No vote on Prop 20 this November.
California’s recent progress in reducing mass incarceration, specifically through voter approved initiatives such as Propositions 47 and Prop 57, have been working well. Prop 57, passed with nearly two-thirds of the vote in 2016, created more opportunities to earn credits toward earlier parole, and has significantly contributed to falling incarceration rates. Proposition 47, passed in 2014, reclassified several drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Proposition 47 has reduced recidivism and contributed to decreased incarceration, in addition to reducing racial disparities in arrests and bookings. While opponents have been critical of the progress made by Proposition 47, there is no evidence to suggest that violent crime rates increased as a result. While it’s conceivable that Proposition 47 may have contributed to an uptick in certain property crimes after its passage, property crime rates overall remain at historic lows. In fact, from 2006 to 2019, California’s property crime rate fell by 28%, and its violent crime rate declined by 19%. Both property and violent crime rates are at historic lows, with violent crime rates dipping to even 1960’s levels.
It’s important to note the context of Propositions 47 and Prop 57. Both of these ballot measures were approved by voters as durable solutions to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata (2011). This ruling defined California’s prison overcrowding as “cruel and unusual punishment”, and ordered population reductions of 1/4th of the total prison population to bring prison crowding to 137.5% greater than design capacity. At the height of CA prison overcrowding in 2007, 173,000 people were jammed into the 35 state prisons – putting them at or above 200% design capacity, and causing the delivery of healthcare services to fall below a constitutionally permissible level.
As of September 2020, after years of reforms and recent releases due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people incarcerated in CA has dropped under 100,000 for the first time in 30 years. This doesn’t mean that prison overcrowding is no longer an issue. The 35 state prisons are designed to hold 89,000 people, while the majority of prisons are still filled above 100% design capacity. As we’ve seen with COVID outbreaks throughout the prison system, overcrowding remains a deadly issue.
Keeping this context in mind, let’s turn to the details of Proposition 20. Proposition 20 seeks to reduce the threshold for felony theft from $900 to $250, thereby further criminalizing poverty even in the face of historically high unemployment rates and a looming eviction crisis. Proposition 20 attempts to reinstate harsher guidelines for parole opportunities, which in the words of former Governor Jerry Brown, “basically eliminates all hope in the prison.” Proposition 20 also seeks to reincarcerate people for technical parole violations, and mandates DNA collection for certain misdemeanor offenses. All of this will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, would crowd state prisons and jails, and would devastate families and communities, especially communities of color. Proposition 20 is investing in failure. We need progress, not more prisons.
It’s also very telling that Proposition 20 aligns closely with the economic and political self-interests of the main proponents: Sheriffs’ Associations, District Attorney’s, and Crime Victims United. Crime Victims United is an organization that has served as a proxy for CCPOA, the state prison guard union. These proponents are trafficking in fear mongering in an effort to scare Californians into voting yes. Proposition 20 is a throwback, however, to the “tough on crime” era responsible for the current system of mass incarceration. It is critical for Proposition 20 to fail resoundingly on the November ballot.
For the first time since the current era of mass incarceration began decades ago, CA is seriously moving toward decarceration, closing state prisons, and ending mass incarceration. We still have a long way to go, but Proposition 20 seeks to reverse the baby steps we’ve begun to make. We must stand together, to reject fear mongering, and instead continue to invest in true safety – secure housing, access to high quality healthcare, and provide economic and social mobility for everyone in society – all actions that will improve public safety far more than Proposition 20 ever can.