Proposition 6′s Answer to Safety Issues: Jail, Jail and More Jail

September 18, 2008

By Sue Burrell  |  Daily Journal  —  

FORUM COLUMN

On this November's crowded initiative ballot, voters will encounter a reassuringly entitled measure, "The Safe Neighborhoods Act," Proposition 6. At first glance, it may seem a likely yes vote, as a large portion of California's law enforcement community supports it. But for those of us who regularly trek to Sacramento seeking health care, education, mental health services and programs for children involved with the court system, this 31-page monster is a big no.

Proposition 6 is a "me first" money and power grab that would permanently enrich a narrow spectrum of the justice system, literally at the expense of everyone else. It would obligate the state to perpetually staff and service more prisons and jails, on the stunted view that incarceration and suppression are what make neighborhoods safe. Beyond that, it would enshrine more than 50 changes in criminal law, with nary a policy or fiscal discussion. And finally, it would surely represent a low point in California history (or a high point in political hypocrisy) – an anti-crime measure, bankrolled by someone who is currently under federal indictment himself for conspiracy to distribute ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Here are some points voters may not catch in the rhetoric. First, the funding. Proposition 6 permanently earmarks close to $1 billion a year for selected law enforcement programs. In addition, because it would add more than 30 new crimes and increased penalties, all of which involve incarceration (at $49,000 per inmate per year), plus unknown construction costs, the actual costs to our state budget would be staggering, and much greater than estimated by the act's proponents. The rest of us would have to slug it out every budget year with what is left in the General Fund to pay for things like child care programs, K-12 education, community colleges and universities, job programs, health care, transportation and emergency services.

Beyond the permanent funding earmark for selected agencies, Proposition 6 represents exceedingly poor public policy. In focusing on increasing penalties, adding new crimes and funding law enforcement infrastructure (building new jails, increasing surveillance capacity), the measure dooms us to dealing with crime largely after it has already happened. Out of the dozens of new programs slated to receive funding, there is only one program clearly aimed at prevention and only a few scattered programs would be considered rehabilitative. Proposition 6 calls for substantially more and longer incarceration, in many cases for non-violent crimes (methamphetamines and vandalism receive substantial attention). The measure also broadens state law to make it easier to try more children as young as 14 as adults, ignoring a just-released federal study finding that children handled in the adult criminal system are more likely to be rearrested and to reoffend than those who committed similar crimes, but were retained in the juvenile justice system. These Proposition 6 "solutions" are being proposed at a time when our prison system is already in litigation over crowding and regular inmate deaths due to inadequate medical care. They are being proposed at a time when it has become increasingly clear that imprisonment is itself a factor that contributes to failure and recidivism.

It is true that incarceration reduces crime during the period of confinement. But the concept of "safe neighborhoods" must recognize that almost all inmates return to the community, and that lengthy incarceration actually works against their ability to succeed once released – particularly given the dismal state of our correctional systems. In February 2008, the Legislative Analyst's Office reported that while the average inmate enters prison with a 7th grade reading level, only 16 percent (27,000 of 173,000) are in core education and vocational programs, and half of all inmates are released without having participated in a rehabilitative or work program.

Proposition 6 works against the very forces that might prevent more people from going into custody or could help them on the way out. It deliberately cuts out the voices of agencies and community members who may be able to contribute family support, education, mental health, employment services and positive youth programs. Inexplicably, the measure removes the current requirements county juvenile justice coordinating councils include representatives from the community, community drug and alcohol programs and nonprofit agencies serving children.

The more than 50 criminal law provisions in Proposition 6 include more than 30 new crimes and increased penalties; weaken the level of proof needed to show gang membership; make it easier to introduce some forms of hearsay; and almost laughably, provide for designation of a gang member for service of process on gangs. If offered through the legislative process, each of these provisions would be subjected to multiple policy discussions and consideration of fiscal impact. By presenting these mega-changes by initiative, there is no way to winnow out the unwise, tinker with language or understand financial implications. (In fact, these provisions were in A.B. 2417, introduced by Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, and did not move in this year's legislative session.) In Proposition 6, this is all yes or all no, with nothing in between.

Proposition 6 has additional provisions that would produce unwanted results in human suffering and more crime. For example, one of the funding streams requires annual criminal record checks on recipients of Section 8 housing (generally for people who are poor, elderly and/or have disabilities), to eliminate tenancies of people involved in criminal activities so that public housing resources can be used "to assist law-abiding families." The net effect of this would be to create homelessness not only for the people who get in trouble, but also for little brothers and sisters, children, parents and grandparents. It would surely contribute to an increase in crimes committed for "survival."

Californians deserve to be protected against crime, and law enforcement plays an important role in that. But even law enforcement should be held to some standards of accountability for public money. Proposition 6 does nothing to assure that accountability. While it has the window dressing of a commission to study evidence-based practices and make recommendations, the body has no actual enforcement powers and there is no assurance that jail or prison programs would be subject to scrutiny. Proposition 6 also permanently earmarks $125 million of taxpayer money every year from now on for the Citizen's Option for Public Safety program, which was recommended for elimination by the Legislative Analyst's Office because it funds "public safety services that lack a specific statewide objective and has no identifiable results to evaluate."

Proposition 6 proponents attempt to create fear among Californians using misleading crime rates suggesting a surge in crime. In fact, violent crime has steadily decreased over more than a decade. The attorney general reports that violent crime has decreased 53 percent since its peak in 1992, and property crime has decreased 43.3 percent since its peak in 1989. In any event, there is something bizarre in having this measure placed on the ballot with $1 million contributed by Henry Nicholas III, who is alleged to have had drug parties with prostitutes on jets, and in several residences he maintained for the use and distribution of drugs. It is difficult to reconcile the facts set forth in his federal indictment with a sincere concern about crime.

We hope Californians, and especially those in the legal community, will share our grave concern over this measure. This is a terrible way to make such extensive changes to our law and funding priorities, and they are not the right ones anyway. Vote no on Proposition 6.

Sue Burrell is a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, public interest law firm that works in California and nationally to protect the rights of children in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.