By Michelle Camerlingo
California’s prison system is like a pressure cooker ready to explode.
With 16,000 inmates assigned cots in hallways and gyms, California prisons are so overcrowded that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently took the highly unusual step of declaring a state of emergency in the system. The state’s prisons house 173,000 inmates — over 200 percent above capacity.
At the core of several lawsuits, its medical program is in federal custody due to violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, counting one unnecessary death per week. Various other components of the system are also under court monitoring. The courts have given the state until this spring to come up with an overpopulation plan or face losing authority over the prisons.
And in the midst of crisis comes a controversial pair of initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot.
Proposition 6, also known as the Safe Neighborhoods Act and the Runner Initiative, would require new state spending on anti-crime and anti-gang efforts, including new technology for law enforcement agencies and increased penalties for some offenses.
Proposition 9, also called “Marsy’s Law,” would give victims more notification and ability to speak at parole hearings and reduce the number of hearings for prisoners.
Zachary Norris of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said the two ballot measures would continue a failed system of incarcerating people with little chance of rehabilitation.
“With a recidivism [return to prison] rate of 70 percent, we have to be smart on crime,” Norris said, “not just tough on crime.”
Norris said both propositions would require more diversions from the state’s general fund at a time when deficits plague the state’s financial picture.
“Propositions 6 and 9 are an ineffective approach to public safety and a wasteful approach to public spending,” Norris said. “Across the state, what we’re seeing is a broad opposition.”
Mike Reynolds, the author of the infamous Three Strikes legislation, is also the author of Proposition 6, which he says “will use a three-prong attack of tougher laws, cheaper jails, and more funding for public safety without raising taxes.”
Reynolds, in his press release, referred to himself as the “father of Three Strikes” and said, “When it comes to punks with guns, they’ve got to be stopped the first time. You can’t wait for three strikes.”
The Three Strikes law, which severely ramps up prison sentences for repeat offenders, passed in 1994. Since it passed, the courts have sent over 80,000 second-strikers, who serve a minimum of 15 years in prison, and 7,500 third-strikers, who serve life sentences. In 2004, 26 percent of inmates serving time in prison are under the Three Strikes law.
Proposed by Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, and Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, the Safe Neighborhoods Act is an all-inclusive initiative with several provisions aimed at improving public safety in California.
The Runners have a history with crime initiatives. In 2006, they spearheaded the Jessica’s Law initiative, which strengthened punishment and tracking of sex offenders, and passed with 77 percent of the vote.
“No matter where you are in the state,” Sharon Runner said, “you don’t feel safe because of the gang issue.”
George Runner said he is very concerned that the liberals in Sacramento will try to cut public safety funds and continue funding programs that benefit undocumented immigrants and expand welfare programs.
According to Sen. George Runner, there is currently $600 million in the budget each year set aside for local law enforcement. If the initiative passes, it would take another $350 million to enforce some of the new provisions.
“In a $104 billion budget, this is really a small portion,” Sharon Runner said. “It’s important to me to give law enforcement the resources they need to put the bad guys away.”
However, opponents of Proposition 6 say that more money for public safety shouldn’t be requested in the midst of the state’s growing deficit, which is now estimated at $14 billion.
“There is a deficit,” George Runner said. “We recognize that, but the first rule of government is public safety.”
Proposition 6 addresses several statutory changes rejected by the Legislature this year or in prior years, according to a summary of the initiative. Proposing an initiative is a way to circumvent the Legislature and bring an issue directly to the voters.
Proposition 6 also requires new state spending on various criminal justice programs, as well as for increased costs for prison and parole operations. This funding would come from California’s General Fund, reallocating funds currently spent on K-12 education, higher education, health and human services, business, transportation and housing and environmental protection.
Proposition 6 would prohibit bail for undocumented individuals charged with violent or gang-related felonies.
But perhaps the most controversial aspect of Proposition 6 is that it deems any youth 14 years or older convicted of a “gang-related” felony as unfit for trial in a juvenile court — thereby prosecuting these youth as adults. Proposition 6 would also allow the use of certain hearsay statements as evidence when witnesses are unavailable.
If Proposition 6 passes, many young men and women will be labeled gang members if they know a gang member, live next door to one, go to school with one, are in the same family, wear certain clothing, are identified by someone as being in a gang, or are arrested with a gang member.
“The Runner Initiative is an unfunded mandate that will gut California’s budget,” said Mayor Ron Dellums of Oakland. “It won’t result in safety and security. Instead it leaves us in more debt with less safety and stability than ever before.”
Norris said, “The Runner Initiative is an investment into failed ‘tough on crime’ policies that cost too much for California in this time of crisis.”
In a press release, Runner noted that Proposition 6 has the support of every elected California sheriff and groups such as the California Police Chiefs Association and the California District Attorneys Association.
“It ensures funding for our local police, sheriff, district attorneys and probation officers — who are the first line of defense in fighting gangs and maintaining peace in our neighborhoods — so that their efforts might be sustained from year to year,” George Runner said.
Local police and sheriff’s departments could also see more funding from the Safe Neighborhoods Act, though the total fiscal impact on county jails and local criminal justice agencies is unknown, according to state estimates.
The initiative guarantees existing grant funding that is sometimes used in budget negotiations, said Will Smith, chief of staff for George Runner.
“They can count on the money, that is the thing,” Smith said. “It’s the sustainability of the resources.”
Funds to pay for these costs, should Proposition 6 pass, will come from California’s general fund. But critics say the initiative gives money to law enforcement that should be spent on more pressing needs and contains little oversight.
“Voters can learn a valuable lesson from a 2006 anti-sex-offender measure that was so flawed it made hundreds of offenders homeless and more likely to re-offend,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial.
Proposition 9 gives victims more input in court cases and more ability to collect restitution. Offenders would get fewer parole hearings and less ability to compel evidence from victims. Potentially the initiative could cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year by limiting the early release of inmates because of prison overcrowding. Proposition 9 would also make it harder to fight wrongful convictions.
However, the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through post-DNA testing, has provided proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but arise from systemic defects.
Among other changes, Marsy’s Law would allow victims to speak at pretrial bail hearings and limit a defendant’s ability to gain evidence from a victim before trial. But, opponents said current law already protects victims.
Proposition 9 supporters turned in over 1.2 million signatures, financed by former Broadcom CEO Henry Nicholas, who named the initiative after his murdered sister. The petition drive to qualify the initiative for the ballot was managed by Bader & Associates at a cost of $2,258,034.
Proposition 9 backers were dealt a setback when Nicholas was recently indicted for drug possession and securities fraud, but the Proposition 9 campaign has distanced itself from Nicholas.
Opponents of the measure say it is costly and duplicates some existing victims’ rights laws, and that both measures would increase California’s already-bloated prison system.
California’s Prison Expansion
Many also point to media coverage as a catalyst for voters to pass tougher crime laws.
Coverage of crime on the three major networks tripled from 571 stories in 1991 to 1,632 stories in 1993, despite the fact that crime declined slightly over that period.
According to the Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC), 76 percent of the public state says they form their opinions about crime from what they see or read in the news — more than three times the number who state they get their primary information on crime from personal experience.
Violent crime dominates crime coverage. Although homicides made up one- to two-tenths of 1 percent of all arrests, homicides made up more than a quarter of all the crimes on the evening news.
Like many other states, California has had large prison-building programs over the years, but few come close to the size or speed of this program.
Since the 1980s, California’s government expenditures have been increasingly driven by another engine — the prison system. Once a sleepy department with little political clout, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has mushroomed into a statewide Goliath whose expenditure increases have outpaced other General Fund expenditures threefold.
In 1994, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice undertook an analysis of the tradeoff between corrections and higher education inherent in California’s “zero sum” budget. This analysis noted that, from 1984 to 1994, California constructed 19 prisons and only one state university.
“If we want to tackle the problems of crime in our communities, we need an investment in education, job training, and community-based crime prevention programs,” Norris said.
Don Specter, the director of the Prison Law Office, which has filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over prison conditions, said Propositions 6 and 9 do little to change the structural problems that have led to overcrowding, like the unusual parole system, which sends former inmates with minor infractions back to prison. Furthermore, the state’s sentencing structure is blind to the problem of prison population, meaning new inmates keep arriving regardless of the ability to accommodate them.
“It won’t do anything to provide short-term relief on the overcrowding,” Specter said.
According to PARC, from 1980 to the present, crime rates have not increased and the explosion of incarceration is due to policy changes.
“Bringing peace to urban America is perhaps the most difficult and profound challenge facing the country today,” Oakland Mayor Dellums said. “However, this is the worst kind of public policy. It plays on our deepest emotions but sets us up for failure.”