Three ballot measures test whether California voters endorse criminal justice reforms or believe they’ve gone too far.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said earlier this year that as the state’s prison population continued to decline, he wanted to start closing down prisons.
He made good on that intention last week when the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced plans to shutter Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, which had been constructed in the 1950s as a place where young felons could be transformed into solid citizens.
“Given the need to achieve savings and the decline in the prison population since 2007, the state budget called for the closure of a prison. (Deuel Vocational Institution) was chosen for closure based on cost to operate, impact of closure on the workforce, and population housing needs, and prioritization of public safety and rehabilitation,” Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement.
The announcement is the latest manifestation of the immense change in California’s approach to criminal justice, from the lock-‘em-up policies of the 1980s and 1990s — which increased the prison inmate populations eight-fold — to the “reforms” of the past decade that have reduced those populations by more than a third.
Some of that reduction stemmed from federal court orders to decrease the severe overcrowding that developed despite construction of dozens of new prisons. However, it mostly reflected a leftward shift in the state’s political atmosphere and former Gov. Jerry Brown’s desire, during his second governorship, to reverse the tough sentencing policies he had embraced during his first tour of duty four decades earlier.
Brown encouraged the Legislature’s dominant Democrats to modify the state’s tough sentencing laws, symbolized by the “three strikes and you’re out” doctrine approved by voters in the early 1990s, and personally sponsored one of several ballot measures to go easier on those convicted of crimes.
In effect, Brown and others in the criminal justice reform movement have sought a return to the penal philosophy that California had adopted during the post-World War II era — that counseling, education, drug treatment and vocational training could convert offenders into productive members of society. It was the philosophy that led to construction of Deuel Vocational Institution in the early 1950s.
The new reformist approach, however, is not without its critics who contend that crime will increase with fewer offenders behind bars, although there’s no statistical support for that, at least so far. The debate over whether reform is working has also found its way, as do many contentious California issues, onto the ballot via three propositions. In numerical order:
—Proposition 17, placed on the ballot by a reform-minded Legislature, would allow felons who have completed their sentences, but are still on parole, to vote. It’s a mostly symbolic gesture but draws ire from criminal justice hardliners who say it would dishonor victims.
—Proposition 20 is the hardliners’ response to the recent spate of laws that lighten punishment, including Brown’s Proposition 57, a 2016 measure that made parole easier for “nonviolent” inmates. If passed, Proposition 20 would make fewer felons eligible for parole, particularly those convicted of sex crimes, by changing the definition of “nonviolent.”
—Proposition 25 is a referendum to repeal one of the Legislature’s landmark criminal justice changes, a 2018 law that eliminates cash bail for criminal defendants on the assertion that bail discriminates against the poor. The bail bond industry, facing extinction, sponsored the referendum and is seeking a “no” vote to repeal the law, arguing that it allows dangerous defendants to roam freely and commit new crimes.
Together, these three measures test whether California voters endorse the criminal justice reform movement or believe that it’s gone too far.