Yesterday’s election results elicited happiness from many quarters. President Obama begins his second term confronted with serious economic issues, but aided by a senate that includes more women than ever, including Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, a testament to the growing power of women and minorities in shaping our collective future. Same-sex marriage has been approved by a popular vote for the first time, and an amendment to the contrary was defeated. More pertinent to the topic of this blog, recreational marijuana has been legalized in Washington and Colorado (though the meaning of this, in light of the continuing federal policy to outlaw the substance, remains to be fleshed out.)

And in California, mixed results on criminal justice matters. Prop 36 passed by a landslide and elicited gratitude from non-violent Third Strikers who are to be resentenced now. As we said before the election, this revision of Three Strikes is fairly modest; it does not change the possibility of simultaneous strikes or the punishment for Second Strikers. The original ambition to repeal this extreme punitive measure was significantly scaled back, though what we have is a good start and offers hope to thousands of people whose hopelessly disproportionate sentences will be shortened.

Much to my disappointment, Prop 34 fell 500,000 voters short from passing. The landmark achievement of a significant decrease in Californians’ traditional support for the death penalty notwithstanding, the death penalty remains, despite the serious arguments for its dysfunction.

And Prop 35, a traditional hodge-podge of punitive measures disguised as a victims’ rights measure, passed as well. As I expected, part of the proposition, which involved unenforceable and overbroad registration requirements for sex offenders, is already raising constitutional questions.

All of this has made me think about broader patterns in California compared to other states. Think of the passage of Prop 8 in 2008 and compare it to the passage of same-sex marriage amendments in various other states in 2012. Think of our failure to pass Prop 19 in 2010 and compare it to the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado in 2012. And think of our failure to pass Prop 34 and compare it to the abolition of the death penalty in numerous states over the course of the last few years. What is wrong in California? Why do the wheels of progress turn so slowly here?

Vanessa Barker’s The Politics of Imprisonment provides a good guideline. Barker argues that crime, and criminal justice, are ultimately experienced on the local level, and that the local political climate of a state has much to do with its administration of criminal justice and imprisonment. In the book, she compares California, Washington, and New York, demonstrating how punishment has taken different forms in the three states that correspond to their traditions and practices of government. Barker sees California as a neopopulist, deeply polarized state, yielding simplistic, black-and-white divisions on punishment because of the voter initiative system. The post Prop-13 political realities of California make it incredibly difficult to move through budgetary changes. Voter initiatives, which are the only way to get through the legislative deadlock, have to present complicated issues as yay/nay questions, impeding serious, impassioned discussions of fact, rather than values, stereotypes and beliefs. And in a climate such as this, even rational facts and figures about costs, which by all right should be nonpartisan matters, become secondary to fear, hate and alienation. It is one of the deepest contradictions of this beautiful state: Hailed as a blue bastion of progress, but cursed with an overburdened, cruel correctional system akin to that of Southern states.

Maybe, like with same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, we have to wait until more states abolish the death penalty, and the next state to do so by voter initiative may not be California. But with a Democrat supermajority in the legislature, we may be able to get over the traditional deadlock and get some things done. My hope that the cost argument would transverse the political divide is not entirely lost, but it is deeply shaken. I still think that the economic argument is incredibly powerful, and attribute the recent successes in marijuana legalization to scarce resources and cost-benefit analysis, among other things. But one cannot ignore the important variable of local government style and tradition in assessing the ability to change the correctional landscape in important ways.

On a more personal note: Many blog readers that have met me in the course of this campaign know how much of my time and persuasive energy I put into the Yes on 34 campaign. I still think that abolition is not impossible and that I will live to see the day in which the United States will join the civilized world in ridding itself of this barbaric punishment method. I still think that, in my lifetime, there will be a time in which we start questioning not only the death penalty, but also life without parole, solitary confinement, racialized segregation practices, and our approach toward juvenile justice. I plan to continue being here and fighting for this important reforms. Because I desperately want the dawn to come.

“But when the dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”
           –Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Many thanks to Chad Goerzen, Francisco Hulse, Jamie Rowen, Aatish Salvi, and Bill Ward, for the conversations that inspired this post.

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