I have noticed more than a few recent media pieces about the notable sentencing reform measure on the ballot in California this year, Proposition 20, and here is a sample:
From the Los Angeles Times, “Prop. 20 sparks debate over effects of criminal justice reform in California“
- From KSBY, “Prop 20 looks to get tough on crime & roll back some criminal justice reforms“
The start of the LA Times piece seems to provide a pretty clear account of the range of complicated state reform realities connected to Prop 20:
As much of the country weighs changes to the criminal justice system, California has had a head start, adopting a series of laws in the last decade that, among other things, helped reduce the state’s prison population by more than one-third, or 50,000 people.
Now a group of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders has placed Proposition 20 on the November statewide ballot, which would expand the list of felonies for which the convicted are ineligible for early parole; increase penalties for repeat shoplifters; and collect DNA samples from adults convicted of some misdemeanors.
Proponents argue that it is needed to fix flaws in past measures that they say are putting the public’s safety at risk, including the early release of potentially violent criminals. But opponents of the measure, who include civil rights leaders, Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown, say it wrongly rolls back necessary criminal justice reforms as crime has declined in recent years. “California is ahead of the game — we’ve done so many great reforms,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a retired sheriff’s captain and proponent of Proposition 20. “But there have been unintended consequences with these reforms.”
Brown, who led past reform efforts, called the initiative “very inhuman.” He said it takes away hope and incentives for prison inmates to pursue educational opportunities and demonstrate good behavior to improve their chances of getting out early. “Proposition 20 is supported by a very narrow group of people who don’t accept even the modest prison reforms that I was able to achieve,” Brown said. “It’s driven by ideology and, in some cases, by a total lack of understanding of human nature and no sense of redemption or allowing people to put their lives on track. It’s vindictive.”
Brown was governor when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that California’s prisons were overcrowded in violation of constitutional protections. That year, he signed Assembly Bill 109 into law to reduce the state prison population by requiring that many people convicted of felonies not involving violence or sex offenses serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prison.
In 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, which reclassified many lower-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Before then, thefts could be considered a felony if stolen merchandise was valued at $450 or more, but Proposition 47 raised the threshold to $950.
Proposition 57, which Brown developed and was approved by California voters in 2016, increased parole and good behavior opportunities for those convicted of nonviolent felonies.
The new initiative to be voted on Nov. 3 makes key changes in the previous three laws.
The measure would broaden the list of crimes that make inmates ineligible for early release from state prison through the parole program in Proposition 57, adding 22 offenses, including trafficking a child for sex and felony domestic violence.
The measure also would increase penalties for people who commit multiple thefts, including serial shoplifting, to address a spate of such crimes, and would mandate the collection of DNA samples from adults convicted of crimes newly classified as misdemeanors under AB 109, including forging checks and certain domestic violence crimes.
In addition, Proposition 20 would require the state Board of Parole Hearings to weigh an inmate’s entire criminal history when deciding parole, not just the most recent offense, which was the standard set by AB 109.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan group CalMatters has this helpful page about Prop 20 which includes a two-minute video seeking to summarize the initiative. This Ballotpedia page on Prop 20 reveals a lot of money has been donated to both the proponents and opponents of this reform, but it does not report on any polling on the topic. I have seen other reports on polling calling this ballot issue a “coin toss” because of so many undecideds. In other words, as always seems to be the case, California in Nov 2020 is yet again a state to watch for those interested in the state of criminal justice reform efforts.