By Linh Nguyen
California’s Proposition 20, on the Nov. 3 ballot, campaigns on the slogan “Keep California Safe,” though racial justice advocates warn of its adverse consequences on criminal justice reform progress.
Known as the Criminal Sentencing, Parole and DNA Collection Initiative, Prop. 20 will recategorize certain crimes to the list of violent felonies for which early parole is restricted.
A few crimes set for recategorization are certain types of theft and fraud crimes that could either be charged as misdemeanors or felonies (wobblers). This proposition would also require DNA collection for certain misdemeanors.
But, according to California racial justice advocates, Prop. 20 will actually do more harm than the good it campaigns on. They urge California voters to vote no on Prop. 20.
In a public letter signed by over 100 grassroots organizations fighting for criminal justice reform, they write, “Prop. 20 is dangerous because it seeks to embed us more firmly in a culture of punishment.”
According to the letter, Prop. 20 would make it easier to charge low-level crimes, like bicycle theft, as a serious felony. It would drop the felony theft threshold from 950 dollars to 250 dollars and create a new set of felony crimes.
For incarcerated people, Prop. 20 would restrict access to parole and rehabilitative programs, which would make it harder for them to earn credit toward release.
Racial justice advocates say that this “anti-reform initiative also violates privacy” in requiring persons convicted of certain misdemeanors, like shoplifting, to submit to the collection of a DNA sample.
Passing Prop. 20 would undo “key aspects” of Props. 47 and 57 and Assembly Bill 109—three measures that were each intended to reduce the state’s prison incarcerated population.
Prop. 47, passed in 2014, reclassified certain theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and authorized defendants serving sentences or completed sentences for felony offenses that would have qualified as misdemeanors under the proposition to petition courts for resentencing or reclassification of convictions under the new provisions.
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, which allows parole consideration for nonviolent felons, changes policies on juvenile prosecution and authorizes sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior and education.
AB 109, known as the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011, shifted correctional responsibilities for lower-level felons (nonviolent, non-sexual and non-serious offenses) from state prisons to local custody. The reform was designed to reduce incarceration rates and correction costs in the belief that county corrections would be more efficient than state corrections.
According to a study from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, crime rates have gradually decreased amid the passages of these reforms.
Research also shows that there is no direct connection between violent crime and the release of people from jail under Props. 47 and 57.
In another report by the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice, it finds Prop. 20 would “erase much of California’s criminal justice reform progress by increasing taxpayer spending on carceral budgets by hundreds of millions of dollars, and stealing vital funding from community systems of care, prevention, and rehabilitation—programs that actually keep people safe.”
The letter claims that the Prop. 20 campaign “relies on the rhetoric of fear, scare tactics, and spurious claims of surging violent crime to support their call for harsher sentencing and deeper carceral spending. Simply put, Prop. 20 supporters want you to believe that additional carceral spending and harsher sentencing will keep people safe.”
Prop. 20 would also add $2.3 billion in carceral spending to California’s already $17 billion corrections budget.
“The central message of Prop. 20, that we must police our way to public safety, is not rooted in facts; you can find its origins in the Trumpian belief that public safety is attained through ‘law and order,’ militant law enforcement and oppression,” said Brian Kaneda, L.A. Coordinator with Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). “This is out of step with the people of California and this cultural moment.”
The ACLU of California, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth Justice Coalition and Dignity and Power Now were among the groups that signed the letter.
According to measure proponent Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a former police officer known for his opposition to police reform, the goal of Prop. 20 is to “reform the unintended consequences of reforms to better protect the public.”
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