How Tough on Crime

California, the home of three-strikes sentencing, has spent the last decade rethinking its approach to criminal justice. Two measures on the November ballot, channeling the spirit of the ‘90s, are pushing to reverse that reversal. 

Prop. 25: Ditch or keep cash bail

Who put it there: Signatures, via a campaign largely funded by the bail bond industry.

Type: Referendum

What it would do: Ask voters to either approve or strike down a state law that banished money bail from the state criminal justice system.

In 2018, acting on the advice of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, legislators passed a bill ending cash bail in California. Rather than letting people pay their way out of jail while they await trial, the law gives judges the right to determine whether someone who is arrested should be kept behind bars based on the risk they are deemed to pose to themselves or others.

Moving quickly, the bail bond industry mounted a campaign to put the question on the ballot as a referendum. Voters will vote either “Yes” to keep the state law and end cash bail for good, making California the first state to do so, or “No” to keep the bail system. 

Prop. 20: Rolling back Brown-era “leniency”

Who put it there: Signatures, via a campaign largely funded by law enforcement agencies.

Type: Constitutional amendment

What it would do: Allow prosecutors to charge repeat or organized petty theft as a felony, require probation officers to seek tougher penalties for those who violate the term of their parole three times, and exclude those who have been convicted of domestic violence and certain nonviolent crimes from early parole consideration. 

Gov. Jerry Brown was famously allergic to talk of his “legacy” while in office. But if the former governor has one, it might be the effort he spent in his final two terms as governor supporting efforts to reverse the “tough on crime” policies he helped introduce during his first two terms in the 1970s and ‘80s. 

In 2011, California legislators reduced punishments for parole violators. In 2014, voters passed Proposition 47, recategorizing some non-violent crimes as misdemeanors. In 2016, voters passed Proposition 57, giving inmates convicted of certain non-violent offenses a shot at early release. 

This ballot measure would partially undo each of those.