On Gov. Brown’s Desk

Gov. Brown signing a bill. Photo
courtesy the Examiner.

The legislative session has ended, and many criminal justice bills are on Governor Brown’s desk, awaiting his signature or veto. Here are some of the important decision already made, or about to be made, at the gubernatorial office.

There is a whole lot of gun control bills. This legislative session, no doubt influenced by the Sandy Hook tragedy, included many bills to prohibit certain types of ammunition, outlaw the sale of fixing kits to create assault rifles, ban open carry, and require certification and licensing. The NRA has issued a call to its members to oppose all of these bills.

There’s also AB 105, proposed by Gov. Brown himself, and signed a few days ago, which will spend $315 million of your money and mine on contracting with private jails. This is part of Brown’s campaign to circumvent the Supreme Court order to reduce population; as BeyondChron pointed out time and again,  Brown’s stubbornness on prisons and general punitive old-school approach to incarceration is difficult to reconcile with his otherwise progressive positions.

Happily, not all news are bad. Brown has signed SB 260, which will give juveniles incarcerated for lengthy periods of time a right to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings to demonstrate their suitability for release after serving at least 15 years of their sentence. This bill may affect the fate of as many as 5,000 California inmates.

Still awaiting gubernatorial approval is SB 649, which would convert all simple drug possession offenses in California into wobblers, allowing for their prosecution as misdemeanors. Ironically, approving SB 649 may work well in conjunction with AB 105, in terms of the monetary savings and inmate diversion that will result from it.

Also sent to the governor’s approval is AB 218, otherwise known as Ban the Box, which prohibits asking job applicants about their criminal records until it is established that they meet the minimum qualifications for the job.

Also notable, SB 569, if signed by the Governor, will require the police to videotape all police interrogations of juveniles accused of murder. Why only juveniles? Why only murder? Presumably, you have to start somewhere, and the risks of procuring false confessions are greater with juvenile suspects. Even this partial requirement has police officers bristling, though I can see benefits to the police in the sense that proper interrogations can no longer be grounds for lawsuits or public upheaval.

If any of the bills to be signed is close to your heart, and you’d like to tell the governor, please do so!

Mailing address:
Governor Jerry Brown
c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814

Phone: (916) 445-2841
Fax: (916) 558-3160

Email here.

Ashker v. Brown: Solitary Confinement Lawsuit Seeking Class Certification

The struggle against long-term solitary confinement continues even after the end of the hunger strike. A group of inmates is suing Gov. Brown and CDCR, hoping for an injunction to end gang validations, confinement based on flimsy evidence, and solitary confinement for long periods of time. They did not get a preliminary injunction, but the motion to dismiss was denied as well.

In the lawsuit, the inmates bring up two types of constitutional arguments:

Due Process arguments, addressing the process by which people are placed in solitary confinement indefinitely. One can end up in solitary confinement for a defined period of time, for a violation of prison rules; this lawsuit addresses a different category of cases, in which people are classified as gang members based on problematic and scant evidence and placed in solitary confinement with no end in sight. If the court accepts this claim, it will order an overhaul of CDCR regulations regarding gang validation.

Eighth Amendment arguments, addressing the physical and mental health risks involved in confining human beings in segregated conditions for more than ten years. There is a solid body of evidence regarding the horrific and irreversible impact of spending dozens of years in a small cell by oneself for 22.5 hours a day, with no human contact, on a person’s body and psyche (see fact sheet). If the court accepts this claim, the best case scenario is a cap on using solitary confinement for periods exceeding ten years.

The first step in court is to have the lawsuit class certified under Federal Rule 23. What that means, in legal parlance, is that the lawsuit becomes a petition on behalf of a group of inmates, rather than the individual petitioners. With regard to the due process argument, the appropriate class consists of all inmates who are in solitary confinement for an indefinite period following a gang validation process. With regard to the Eighth Amendment argument, the appropriate class consists of anyone doing time in solitary for more than ten years. Here’s the petition for class certification.

Under Rule 23, the inmates will have to prove that they are too numerous a group to litigate individually, and that the representative inmates bringing the suit are adequate representatives with claims that are typical to the entire group. This has been a problem in the past sometimes, when inmates brought up common law questions that would require individually-tailored legal responses. It does not seem that this is the case here. What the petitioners are seeking is a change in validation policy and a cap on confinement length, a remedy that would address the concerns of the entire class. So, the petition for class certification seems to have a fairly good chance. As to the merits of the suit, we’ll continue following it.

Interested in attending the oral argument? 

When: Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 at 2:00 p.m.
Where: Oakland Courthouse, Courtroom 2, 4th floor, 1301 Clay Street, Oakland, CA, 94612 before Chief District Judge Claudia Wilken.

The Center for Constitutional Rights wants people to attend the hearing. If you plan on showing up, do your best to arrive 30 minutes to one hour early, in order to go through security. Everyone will need a current form of identification in order to get inside the building.

For those of you who can’t make it, the CCC blog will cover the oral argument.
Thanks to my colleague Morris Ratner for our conversation about class certification.

Ban the Box Needs Your Help!

Cheauvon, and other honest and accountable formerly incarcerated people who are looking for work and want to take responsibility for their lives, need YOUR help!

AB 218, otherwise known as the Ban the Box initiative, would prohibit state or local agencies from asking an applicant to disclose information regarding a criminal conviction until the agency has determined the applicant meets the minimum qualifications for the position. From the reentry perspective, it is a laudable initiative that gives formerly incarcerated people a fair shot at being considered for a position on their merits and qualifications.

The bill failed on the Senate Floor yesterday by a vote of 20 to 16, but was granted reconsideration. Which means there is something you can do to make things right. It’s the last day of the Senate session and this is an opportunity to pass this important bill.

Call one of these senators (highest priority are Senators Pavley and Roth):

Fran Pavley: Phone: (916) 651-4027 District 27 incorporates and maintains the eastern portion of Ventura County, which includes the cities of Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills, and Westlake Village. It also includes the coastal area extending from Leo Carrillo State Beach to Malibu and on to Topanga Canyon. Additionally, it captures the communities of Calabasas, West Hills and a portion of Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County. It maintains the coastal mountain range and watershed. This district reunites the cities in Eastern Ventura County above the Conejo Grade and combines them with communities in the greater Santa Monica Mountain area and the western San Fernando Valley along the Highway 101 and 118 corridors.

Richard Roth: Phone: (916) 651-4031; District 31: Riverside County including the Cities of Corona, Eastvale, Jurupa Valley, Moreno Valley, Norco, Perris and Riverside, Fax: (916) 651-4931

Hannah-Beth Jackson: Phone: (916) 651-4019; District 19 Santa Barbara County and a portion of Ventura County.Santa Maria, Buellton, Solvang, Goleta, Santa Barbara, San Buenaventura, the Santa Clara Valley (Santa Paula, Fillmore, Piru) and Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo on the southeastern border. Agricultural nexus between the Santa Clara Valley, Oxnard plains, and the Santa Maria area.

Jerry Hill: Phone: (916) 651-4013; District 13; Atherton, Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Hillsborough, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Mountain View, Pacifica, Palo Alto, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Mateo, South San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Woodside and parts of unincorporated San Mateo County and unincorporated Santa Clara County.

Here’s a suggested script for your call:

“I live in the Senator’s district and I support AB 218. I want to urge the Senator to pass this bill. This bill is important to our community because … ”
• “it will help reduce recidivism.”
• “it will increase public safety by making sure people with records have a chance at being employed.”
Use your own words and reasons.
If the idea is to make folks with criminal records contributors, rather than burdens, on the economy, the way to do it is to at least not make it impossible for them to find work. DO SOMETHING TODAY to help them.

Hunger Strike, Day Six: 7,667 Inmates on Strike, CDCR Threatens Repercussions

Reuters Los Angeles reports:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that 7,667 inmates in 24 prisons and one out-of-state unit had missed nine consecutive meals, the benchmark used by the state’s prison system for recognizing a hunger strike. 

That is well below the 12,421 inmates out of a total prison population of more than 130,000 that officials had confirmed were striking on Thursday in an what the Los Angeles Times said marked the largest prison hunger strike in California history. 

California prison officials have threatened to impose disciplinary measures on inmates who take part in what the prison system has termed as illegal “mass disruptions.” 

Officials have not specified what privileges could be taken away from inmates, but on Friday they said visitors would be allowed into state prisons as usual this weekend. They said the prison system was not negotiating with the strikers.

While 7,667 is a lot less than the original 12,421, it is important to keep in mind that it is also more than the number of strikers in any of the previous strikes. Obviously, the folks who continue the strike are the folks that are most committed to achieving its goals; we have no breakdown by institution, but it is probably reasonable to assume that SHU inmates have the least to lose.

What can you do?

1. Many people still don’t know about the hunger strike. Make it a topic of conversation this weekend.
2. Join the human rights pen pal program and cheer up a hunger strikers with letters from the outside.
3. Donate to support the folks helping and visiting inmates at Corcoran.

Thoughts on Standing, Or: Why Should I Care About PRISM/mass incarceration/the Hunger Strike?

Recently, many Californians rejoiced at the news that the Supreme Court, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, would not hear conservative arguments to preserve the discriminatory Prop 8 because of lack of standing. The happiness was because of the combined effect of the decision with another decision handed that day, U.S. v. Windsor, which found the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The bottom line is that same-sex marriage, in the states that recognized it (now thirteen and the District of Columbia, with the addition of CA), is fully federally recognized. Nothing has changed in states that have not recognized same-sex marriage, and there are still many battles to be fought on those fronts; but some happy outcomes in the area of immigration are already happening.

But what did the Court really say about Prop 8? Rather than reaching the decision on its merits and expressing a clear opinion about the proposition’s constitutionality, the Court found that, when a state government is unwilling to defend one of its laws, private citizens cannot do so in its stead–not even when said citizens were pointed to by the government as possible ideological and financial stewards of this law. The dissenters, I’m sure, would come to different conclusions on the merits, but the opinion of the court is based on what Chief Justice Roberts and others consider principles of sound government. This is particularly interesting in the context of a neopopulist, direct democracy system like the one in California, in which legislative impasse requires that ideologically controversial laws be taken up by the voters.

The five Justices were very cautious not to attach value judgments to their no-standing decision, but we are free to think whether such meanings exist. Usually, the test for standing has to do with whether the party in question has a stake in the matter before the court. And it could be argued (albeit with little help from the text in Hollingsworth) that a no-standing argument is a broader statement against the notion that same-sex marriage somehow affects–in injury or otherwise–people who are not same-sex couples. The little graphic below, which made the rounds on the social networks in the last few months, is an expression of this interpretation of lack of standing: That gay people can now marry has no injurious effect on the institution of marriage itself, so no one but the government can argue against it.

But on further thought, this interpretation of standing is not the deepest or most interesting stance on the matter. After all, that same-sex marriages may proceed in California, now with full federal backing and support, does have an effect on everyone in the state, in the sense that we all live in a more just and egalitarian society, that has taken an important step in furthering civil rights. This is why organizations such as the ACLU of Northern California have a stake in the decision, if not as official parties then at least as amici. This is not, however, a matter of technical legal standing, but rather one of moral standing; when some of us don’t get our civil rights, it affects all of us in a variety of ways.

What does all of this have to do with the hunger strike? I have recently had a chance to interact with various progressive audiences, only to find out that they were unaware of the hunger strike that begins tomorrow in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and possibly other prisons. Those who knew, vaguely, about the strike, were not well informed about the inmates’ five core demands and of CDCR’s new protocols’ failure to address them. Very few people know that Christian Gomez, an inmate at Corcoran, died during the previous hunger strike. Very few people know that the strike galvanized agreements across races and gang affiliations. My grave concern is that, like its predecessors, this strike will receive little publicity, and the illness and possible death that might result will remain unknown and unexamined. And this is because I think we all have standing on this matter. Not in the strictly legal sense, but in the sense that treating our fellow human beings, Americans, Californians, in inhumane ways does have a detrimental effect on how we all treat each other.

What keeps us unaware of prison conditions, why do many of us feel that we lack “moral standing” on incarceration conditions? Some of this has to do with misinformation. Mainstream media does not cover incarceration frequently, though the financial crisis has begun to change that insofar as expenditures on corrections affect our wallets. Still, since incarceration does not affect everyone equally, many of us are likely to familiarize ourselves with its evils through the increasing number of new TV shows about prison (such as the new Orange is the New Black,) which will likely not tell us anything of social or political value. Even shows that purported to offer some critique of the system left its basic tenets unexamined. Moreover, prisons themselves are distant from the consciousness of those not directly affected. The disparate effect of incarceration is exaggerated by institutions like Pelican Bay and Corcoran, which are far away from major urban centers and very difficult to get to, and by the worrisome prospect of even larger, more isolated institutions.

But one should be informed, and one should care, because incarceration and segregation regimes do affect all of us  First of all, one in a hundred Americans is behind bars, and one in 36 is under some form of correctional supervision. That person could be you. While I think articles like this one are somewhat facetious–the people targeted by technology laws are unlikely to be the critical mass of inmates in California prisons, for a variety of reasons involving race, class, and enforcement priorities–those are still vast numbers of lives touched by the experience of imprisonment. But at least one must acknowledge that the vast numbers of incarcerated people mean that the experience of incarceration touches many, many lives, such as those of 2.5 million children with parents behind bars. If that child is not you, he or she is your future neighbor, coworker, and fellow citizen. Most people behind bars will, one day, be released, and it is to the benefit of all of us that they have some chance of reintegration because we all have to interact with each other, even when someone we don’t know crosses our path in our gated community.

Second, even if your life has not been touched by incarceration, the dehumanization of your fellow citizens may eventually spill over to the way your government sees you. This is why the recent discoveries about phone surveillance cannot be brushed away with the supposition that, if one is not a terrorist, one is not affected by PRISM. Approaches toward human rights, surveillance and social control tend to be imported and exported across systems and institutions, and not caring about other human beings’ conditions of confinement may infect conditions in schools and other places.

Third, there is the persistent question of how much all of this costs us. Even if this system could be stomached from the humanitarian perspective, is it financially viable?

And finally, there is a serious moral argument. Do you want to be part of a society that locks up people for many years, sometimes decades, for 22.5 hours a day, waking them up frequently so they get little to no sleep, with no human company whatsoever, abysmal medical care, and very poor food? Do you feel comfortable subjecting others to this regime based on partial and faulty information, particularly reports of some people on others to receive a reprieve from this same system? Do you believe tattoos and rumors to be a fair indication of gang affiliation, enough to place a person in this system for years? And do you feel comfortable with the possibility that we might have made a mistake and subjected an innocent person to years of horrific torture?

If not, stand with the hunger strikers tomorrow. Because you have moral standing.

A Fundraiser for Homeboy Industries

As a few blog readers might know, when not fighting the California correctional ogre, I am an open water marathon swimmer. In 24 days, I will swim the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim – 24 miles of nonstop swimming in ocean water.

I am using the swim to raise funds for Homeboy Industries, a wonderful Los Angeles based reentry nonprofit. All the information is in this link. 100% of your contributions go to Homeboy Industries; the swim expenses come out of my personal pocket. If you can, please consider contributing so I can support their important enterprise!

Stop Torture: The Continuing Fight Against Solitary Confinement. Guest Post by Ashley Toles and Courtney Oxsen

The following is a post by Ashley Toles and Courtney Oxsen, who organized the incredible event on solitary confinement at Hastings yesterday. Pictures are by Ashley Toles and Robert Hammill.


What an incredible evening we had at UC Hastings Tuesday night! Our wonderful panel titled “Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Resumes: The Continued Struggle to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement in California” was accompanied by a life-sized model of a solitary confinement cell found in California’s Secure Housing Units (SHU). Urszula Wislanka and Penny Schoner from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition were extremely helpful in getting the model SHU prison cell set up for tours. The model SHU cell is a life-sized 8’x10’ windowless cell that the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition brings to various events in California. It is eye-opening for people to actually step inside and get a small glimpse of the tiny, cramped space that many prisoners held in solitary confinement have to live in for decades. On a table to the side of the model SHU, we had letters that people could send to Governor Jerry Brown, explaining how they felt when they stepped inside the cell. The Governor has been largely silent on the issue of solitary confinement in CA prisons, and we want to urge him to respond meaningfully to the torture that has been going on for far too long, since even before Pelican Bay State Prison SHU was constructed in 1989.


As we watched people enter and emerge from the model SHU, we were able to see the shock on their faces when they experienced how claustrophobic that small space made them feel, even for just a few moments. Many people said they were surprised by how small the cells are, how many hours prisoners are held in their cell per day, and how many years prisoners are kept in solitary confinement! This sense of shock is the reason we need to have as many events like this as we can; most people simply do not know that this torture is going on in their beloved State of California.


The panel was moderated by the lovely Hadar Aviram, who did a wonderful job introducing all the panelists and asking the right questions to get the discussion going. The first panelist to speak was Charles Carbone, a seasoned prisoner rights lawyer and counsel on the Ruiz v. Brown lawsuit filed by prisoners who have spent more than ten years in SHU, who is well-versed on the intricacies of CDCR’s policies and rhetoric. He outlined a history of solitary confinement, explaining the 19th century puritan societal worldview that giving a person a Bible and sending them to do “penitence” in solitary confinement would reform them. Ultimately, that policy experiment was deemed a rehabilitative failure, but American government has embraced solitary confinement anew in recent decades. Carbone also challenged CDCR’s “new” policies as being even worse than their former practices. Prisoners are still being held indefinitely in solitary confinement for their political and cultural tattoos, artwork, and written material that prison officials deem “gang activity,” without any evidence of violent or threatening behavior, and with no meaningful opportunity for release.

Steven Czifra and Jose “Danny” Murillo, UC Berkeley students who have both been incarcerated for years in the SHU, went on to describe their experience of long-term extreme isolation in the SHU. We were haunted by Steven’s analogy that the SHU is just like “a bunch of ghosts trying to cheer each other up.” He repeatedly mentioned how kind and humane people in the SHU acted towards each other. “It only took one person who believed in me,” said Stephen. Stephen is now studying English at UC Berkeley and has a wonderful family life. Danny said that growing up, he struggled with anger issues and was never the best student. During his time in the SHU, he was inspired by the help and encouragement of his fellow inmates who believed in him. He earned his GED and took some college classes through the educational programming CDCR has since eliminated from the SHUs. Danny is now an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in the Ethnic Studies Department. And to think that these two were labeled the “worst of the worst!”

The next speaker Terry Kupers, is a clinical psychiatrist and expert on the mental health impacts of long-term solitary confinement. Terry testifies in a lot of litigation involving jail and prison conditions and how those conditions affect prisoners’ mental health. He was right on the money with everything he said last night. Terry emphasized the important fact that locking people up in solitary confinement does not reduce the violence rate in prisons. In fact, research has proven the opposite. He also emphasized how the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment and “torture” were essentially the same; the only difference is that we don’t like to talk about torture here in the United States. We like to think of torture as something that goes on in distant “less civilized” countries. We are uncomfortable with the idea that our government tortures its citizens, but until we acknowledge that this is happening, there will be no change. If the only way to escape solitary confinement is to “parole, debrief, or die,” how is that anything but torture?

Marie Levin spoke about how solitary confinement hurts other people besides just the prisoners in solitary; in particular, their family members and the communities they have been removed from. Marie is the sister of Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, who has been in the SHU at Pelican Bay since 1990. She has not hugged her brother in over two decades and has only been able to see him 10 times since he’s been at Pelican Bay. She told the heartbreaking story of their sister Carol’s death in 2010. Carol had kidney failure in 2001 and after discovering this, Sitawa wanted to donate a kidney to save his sister’s life. The prison would not allow him to make the donation, and after years of fighting this, Carol died in a puddle of blood after a dialysis treatment. This is just one of the many horrifying stories brought to you by California’s solitary confinement regime. Ashley, co-author of this article, had the privilege of meeting Sitawa last week on our visit to Pelican Bay, and when he told this same story, she had to fight back tears.

Azadeh Zohrabi, a Soros Justice Fellow, Hastings alum, and the brilliant woman who is spearheading the Stop the Torture campaign to end solitary confinement in California spoke next. She focused her comments on the 2011 hunger strikes and how the prisoners’ demands are still not being met by CDCR, despite their promises of reform that ended the strike. Although they have new regulations, they do not meet the prisoner’s very reasonable demands, and the prisoners have announced that the strike is set to resume July 8th of this year. She spoke about the importance of the Stop the Torture campaign and raising awareness around this issue. She remarked that perhaps the dangerous and painful hunger strike could be avoided if this issue gets enough attention before July 8th. She said that people don’t just go on hunger strike for fun. Lives were lost during the last hunger strikes and people lost a lot of weight and had significant medical complications resulting from the strike. The fact that prisoners would risk their lives to bring attention to the conditions of their confinement is a testament to how dire the situation is. During our visits to Pelican Bay last week, many men indicated their commitment to see this strike through if the results they were already promised are not reached. One inmate, in describing why he would risk his life in a hunger strike, said, “It’s no life in here.”

In total, approximately sixty guests attended the event and we are hoping a lot of them will trickle in to the State Building over the next couple days for the “California Correctional Crisis: Realignment and Reform” symposium! There will be ample opportunity at the symposium to delve deeper into the issues California faces in its multi-faceted correctional crisis. To stay plugged into this issue, visit Stop Torture CA and follow us on Twitter @StopTortureCA. 

BREAKING NEWS: Prop 34 Leading in Polls

The Chron reports:

A ballot measure to repeal California’s death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole has gained support in the last week and leads by 45 to 38 percent among likely voters in the final Field Poll before Tuesday’s election. 

The poll, conducted Oct. 25-30, was the first to show a lead for Proposition 34, which had trailed 42 to 45 percent in the last survey in mid-September. Polling also found that a majority agreed with one of Prop. 34’s major premises – that the death penalty is more expensive than life without parole – and a plurality said innocent people are executed “too often.” 

Some other recent statewide polls have reported Prop. 34 trailing by as much as seven percentage points. But Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said his organization’s new survey was more up-to-date and found that the measure’s margin of support had widened by six percentage points in a single week. 

Next week, vote with the majority of Americans for justice that works. Yes on 34. No on 35. Yes on 36.

CCC Endorsements 2012: YES on 34. NO on 35. YES on 36.

In two weeks, California voters will be offered the opportunity to vote on three criminal justice initiatives: Prop 34, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole; Prop 35, which would increase penalties for sex trafficking, make evidentiary changes, and further burden registration requirements for sex offenders; and Prop 36, which proposes a small but significant revision to the Three Strikes Law. There has been much talk about each of these individual propositions. In this short piece, I examine them together and show how they represent two different strands of thinking about criminal justice: New ideas of parsimony and effectiveness through Props 34 and 36, and old-school punitivism packaged as victims’ rights, via Prop 35.
Proposition 34 has received the most media attention of the three, and with good reason. What is interesting about it is not only the historical opportunity to do away with the death penalty, but also the new justifications and realpolitikbacking up the campaign. Voters are encouraged to look beyond their ideological and philosophical opinions about the death penalty, and instead consider the way the death penalty is actually applied in California. The data, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office fiscal report, paint a disturbing picture. Since renewing executions in the 1970s, the state has executed merely 13 inmates. During that same time, 84 death row inmates died of natural causes. The paucity of executions stems from extensive (and expensive) litigation on behalf of the inmates, which is financed by the state, and is increasingly focused on chemical availability and injection techniques. The result is that the death penalty, in reality, has become no more than life without parole, under special conditions (housing 725 inmates in single, rather than double, cells, with extensive security measures), accompanied by decades of incessant litigation and health care expenses, with or without an execution at the end, the elimination of which will save the state a hundred million dollars in the first year alone according to the Legislative Analyst’s office analysis. Under these circumstances, philosophical differences about the state’s right to kill, the meaning of retribution, and the importance of closure for victims, become irrelevant. Some might think that the right thing would be to fix the death penalty, rather than eliminate it, but no proposition along the former lines is realistically forthcoming, and therefore many former (and current) supporters of the death penalty, including victims’ rights advocates, law enforcement officials, and original proponents of the California death penalty statute, have joined the Yes on 34 campaign.
Prop 36, which would reform the Three Strikes Law, is similar to Prop 34 in that it transcends ideological differences in penal politics to offer a practical, parsimonious fix, albeit a modest one in this case. Currently, the Three Strikes Law inflicts a double sentence on habitual offenders who commit a second violent or serious felony, and a twenty-five-years-to-life sentence upon commission of a third felony, even if the third felony is not violent or serious. The law also allows strikes to be imposed simultaneously, implying that the rationale behind its punitive regime is not deterrence, but rather incapacitation. Currently, California prisons house approximately 32,000 second strikes and 9,000 third strikers; an estimated half of the latter population is serving a twenty-five-years-to-life sentence for a third strike that was neither serious non violent. Beyond the consistently unfavorable media coverage of the injustices propagated on this population (including harsh sentences for thefts of items that cost less than ten dollars), Prop 36 raises serious fiscal issues. While third strikers are a small population, they serve lengthy sentences, which make them by definition expensive inmates. The state spends approximately 50,000 dollars per inmate per annum, and much of this amount is due to health care costs, which apply mostly to old and infirm inmates. The proposed reform to the law is fairly minor: Second strikers’ sentences will remain the same, as will the ability to obtain simultaneous strikes. The only reform would be eliminating the harsh sentence for non-serious, non-violent third strikes, making those a double sentence rather than twenty-five years to life.  Current non-violent third strikers would become eligible for resentencing. The Legislative Analyst’s office estimates annual savings that might exceed 100 million dollars.
As opposed to Props 34 and 36, Prop 35 is a classic example of old-school punitive thinking masquerading as a victims’ rights proposition. Marketed as supportive of sex trafficking victims to give it moral weight, the actual text does little, if anything, to help victims. Moreover, the proposition is a mixed bag of the sort of punitive propositions Californians have experienced (and voted on) for years: An increase in the already-considerable sentences of human traffickers, changes to the mens rea requirement for trafficking minors, nebulous criminalization of sex work, and a host of bizarre and unenforceable additions to the already-pervasive sex offender registration scheme (sex offenders would presumably have to report their email addresses and usernames, which cannot possibly be monitored or enforced in any way.) Beyond lip service to the idea of training police to respond well to victims, the proposition would not really improve the situation of victims of trafficking in any predictable way, and its backers and endorsers are counting on the morality hype to confuse voters into doing what seems morally right and vote yes. It would be a costly mistake, along the lines of the 2009 Marsy’s Law and countless other propositions of the same ilk.
The contrast between Props 34 and 36 on one hand and Prop 35 on the other is more than a juxtaposition of nonpunitive and punitive measures. It is a juxtaposition of a new way of thinking about criminal justice in an era of scarcity. Our paucity of resources requires a careful assessment of what actually works in criminal justice reforms, rather than bombastic expenditures on symbolic punitivism that do little to prevent crime or empower victims. It is not crude or crass to discuss money in this context. Our willingness to spend resources on the criminal justice resources is the clearest statement of our priorities as a society. Voting yes on 34 and 36 is sending a loud and clear message that the money spent on executions and unnecessarily lengthy incarcerations is better spent on education, health care, road maintenance, and—yes—improving police investigation.
This election offers you the opportunity to do away with old partisan thinking and reject the tried-and-untrue method of extreme punishment and ratcheted sentencing. Reverse the punitive pendulum and opt for justice that works, not punitive proclamations that promise and do not deliver. Vote yes on 34, no on 35, and yes on 36.