Column: Prop 57: Do you feel lucky?
Sponsors say Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, will save taxpayers money by making nonviolent felons eligible for parole earlier and improve fairness by having judges, not prosecutors, decide whether juveniles are tried as adults. Critics call it a “get out of jail early” card. I would add that it’s the sort of dishonest measure that becomes commonplace under unaccountable one-party rule. State pols gamed the system to get it on the ballot. The title promises public safety when it could result in the early release of repeat offenders. Yet California voters are likely to approve Prop. 57 because they don’t know what the measure really does.
Prop. 57 originally was submitted as a measure to let judges decide whether juveniles are tried as adults. Later, sponsors changed its focus to expand adult parole. In Sacramento, when you gut a bill and replace it with something else, it’s called “gut and amend.”
The California District Attorneys Association went to court because sponsors changed the language after a 30-day public comment period. (A 2014 reform was supposed to improve the initiative process by giving critics a chance to comment and proponents an opportunity to correct their product. Instead, Gov. Jerry Brown and company used the new timetable to rewrite the language when it was too late for a fix.)
The California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in Brown’s favor. In his lone dissent, Justice Ming Chin lamented the top court setting a precedent of turning a “true reform” into “just another rule that can easily be evaded with a little imagination.”
California has been under U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the prison population — which Brown has overseen. But also, this is personal for Brown. In 1976, during his first stint as governor, Brown signed a determinate sentencing law with fixed penalties for serious crimes. “I didn’t think about incentives,” Brown recently told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board. “My point was to avoid arbitrariness and have a clear punishment.”
The second time around, Brown sees a prison system that is “criminogenic” — he means, prison creates more crime — “because it is run by gangs. There’s dope, violence, intimidation and rape.” Most inmates are going to get out anyway. If Prop. 57 passes, more inmates will participate in rehabilitation programs, Brown argues, as he frames Prop. 57 as “a scheme where people have to earn their way out.”
Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation maintains that California’s crime rates have been low over the past decade because of laws like the 1994 “three strikes” measure that increased sentences for criminals who re-offend. Prop. 57 peels back that focus.
The ballot argument assures voters Prop. 57 “does not authorize parole for violent offenders.” But as former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson points out, that’s not entirely accurate. Prop. 57 would allow the state to parole an inmate after serving time for shoplifting, a nonviolent crime — but even if the shoplifter had an earlier conviction for assault with a deadly weapon that lengthened the sentence under three strikes. “You are putting a dangerous person back on the street,” Wilson warned. Instead of concentrating on keeping recidivists behind bars, he added, “we will be letting out people who are in fact dangerous.”
By making repeat offenders as eligible for parole as first-timers, Wilson argued, Prop. 57 also would undercut automatic sentence enhancements for ex-cons who carry guns when they re-offend. And because Prop. 57 is a constitutional amendment, it’s extra hard to fix.
What could go wrong? Well, in 2014 Californians approved Proposition 47, which downgraded property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Yet, most voters did not realize they had downgraded gun theft and possession of date-rape drugs to misdemeanors. Last year, violent crime jumped 10 percent. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe the surge was the result of “reforms” — see chart — that cut the state’s prison population by a quarter.
The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst estimates Prop. 57’s savings to be in the tens of millions annually, but that’s based on estimates that 30,000 inmates would become eligible for parole. Brown tells a different story. He told The Chronicle that Prop. 57 would make some 1,300 inmates eligible for parole; likely half, or 700 inmates, would win early release. But if the legislative analyst is right, half of 30,000 inmates could get out of prison early. In short order, California’s prison population could drop by a third, to 110,000 from 166,000 in 2010.
Would Prop. 57 free 15,000 or 700 inmates? If sponsors hadn’t hopscotched public comment, a vote for Prop. 57 wouldn’t be a total crapshoot. Wilson fears Prop. 57 will take California back to the 1970s, when crime was so scary that San Francisco’s best-known movie cop was Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. After a shootout, the detective would ask bad guys if they wanted to bet whether a bullet was left in his .44 Magnum: “Do you feel lucky?” So, 15,000 inmates or 700? Do you feel lucky, voter?