I offer you Exhibit A, which proves that voters have the power to bring about positive prison reform. Exhibit A is the result of the vote on Proposition 57, which California voters approved on November 8th with 63 percent of the vote. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the impetus of Governor Jerry Brown’s putting Prop 57 on the ballot was “to further shrink the state’s prison population.” The proposition “was supported by almost two-thirds of voters in Tuesday night returns. Its strongest support came from urban areas with a sizable number of Democratic voters.”
Governor Brown put Prop 57 on the ballot because the tough sentencing laws he once supported had had unintended consequences, such as overcrowded prison conditions and the cruel and unusual living conditions about which I have written in my blog.
The Scope and Key Prison Reform Elements of Prop 57
The title of the initiative highlights its focus on prison reform: The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016. A review of the act reveals the essence of its sensible incarceration-related guidelines. Here are two new guidelines from the act:
- Stop the revolving door of crime by emphasizing rehabilitation, especially for juveniles.
Overview: Prop 57 increases the number of nonviolent inmates eligible for parole consideration and enables more inmates to earn credits for good behavior. The net effect will reduce California’s inmate population and the operating cost of the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation burgeoning budget. An ambiguity in the law—the meaning of nonviolent crimes, which gives rise to the term nonviolent inmates—remains a subject of dispute.
The legal appellate process will, over the years, fine-tune the legislative intent of the term nonviolent in its context. Meanwhile, the new law will apply in cases where crimes are clearly nonviolent, such as personal drug use, identity fraud, and grand theft, and will benefit hundreds if not thousands of incarcerated people.
- Require a judge, not a prosecutor, to decide whether juveniles should be tried in adult court.
Overview: Prop 57 empowers judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try a juvenile as an adult. This is a good idea. The likely effect will be a reduction in the number of young offenders being placed in an adult criminal justice system. The motivations of judges and prosecutors are different on this issue.
In my opinion, the judiciary, in general, harbor more humanistic tendencies toward juveniles, whom they may not view as irreparable. Prosecutors see otherwise through jaded glasses because their careers thrive on the number of convictions under their belts. Also, the more severely defendants are penalized, the more likely deputy district attorneys’ aspirations are to move into the judiciary or politics; these attorneys are perceived as tough on crime, not tough on achieving justice. The California Secretary of State, Fair Political Practices Commission reports that Prop 57 was opposed by top donors to the California Association of Deputy District Attorneys.
The power of our votes is exemplified by the outcome of Prop 57.
Do you know of any other recent situations where a ballot measure or new law has had a positive impact of moving prison reform forward? If so, please let me know, and with your permission, I will share that information here.
If you voted no on Prop 57, I’d like to hear from you, too. Please use the comments section to respond.
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