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Support Prop 47

Rep. Karen Bass, ACLU Executive Director Hector Villagra, and Prof. Kareem Crayton

In case there is any confusion over dubious advertising, I must go on record urging all of you to Vote Yes on 47 (let alone to place your mark on the entire ballot—many of us sometimes inadvertently forget to do that).

In a separate article, I am going to write about the cover-up regarding the misguided (and deliberately deceptive) war on drugs. But for now, I must offer clarity to what passage of this proposition (with all its ramifications) will establish.

Turn The Page

I was at the recent "Turn The Page" conference, led by a number of prominent speakers, that addressed this and related issues. Karen Bass (former Speaker of the Assembly and current Congresswomen from the Los Angeles area) launched the panel session, which was moderated by ACLU Southern California Executive Director Hector Villagra. She reminded us that the drug war, carried on over far too many unsuccessful years and dating back at least to the Reagan Administration (remember, Just Say No!), led to massive incarcerations. Caught in the web was a disproportionate number of people of color convicted of mostly non-violent crimes, such as possessing an ounce of marijuana or selling drug paraphernalia or stealing a slice of pizza (the latter of which infamously placed the offender in jail for 25 to life under the mandatory-minimum laws).

In fact, the infamous 3-strikes law led to building 12 more prisons in our state, many of which were profit-driven, private enterprises whose operators urge Sacramento to pass more laws (with very broad, wide-sweeping parameters) which would, in turn, populate our prisons with ever-larger numbers. As President Eisenhower once said upon leaving office, Beware the military-industrial complex! Well, Attorney General Eric Holder is similarly warning, Beware the prison-industrial complex!

Holder is further urging prosecutors across the country to be more lenient with those who have committed victimless crimes and to be more compassionate with how sentences are meted out. There is great need for sentencing reform, but this can only happen when lawmakers are willing to change policy or, short of that, when voters support reform through the Initiative Process. Again, we must Support Proposition 47!

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As a consequence of the current irrational, illogical, myopic process, low-level offenders (after release from prison) are forever relegated to the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder for a variety of reasons:

  • They would never be able to vote (and hence would not have the ability to participate in decisions for their own communities).
  • Often they would not be permitted to go back home to take up residence there because a member of the family may have had a criminal record in the past.
  • At present, they are precluded from being hired in more than 50 job categories because of laws that were passed by uninformed, often intolerant, and seemingly biased “lawmakers.”

When the formerly incarcerated return to their home communities, too frequently they are forever stigmatized and humiliated (often because of youthful, non-violent transgressions). It becomes harder for them to fit back in and contribute in a positive way to society, let alone to their immediate neighborhoods.

Disproportionate Sentencing

Don’t forget the concept of plea-bargaining. Often the real criminal rolls over on a naïve accomplice (maybe someone waiting in the car). The actual perpetrator gets a minimum sentence while the “friend” gets 25 years. And what about proportionality? Why do people of color get far higher sentences than others do for similar “crimes”? For instance, those caught with rock/crack cocaine get far heftier sentences than do wealthier, white offenders who were arrested with powder cocaine? So unfair and so unjust—yet, perpetrators of relatively minor crimes continue to get caught in an unforgiving, tangled legal web.

Vincent Bugliosi

Vincent Bugliosi

What recourse do we offer these “felons” who were convicted under questionable laws? It is true that while in prison, some can take advantage of certain available programs in order to obtain their high school GED diploma or get a college degree, but I have found in working with prisoners that many who attempt these endeavors do not have families that can furnish the money to pay for the course-work, books, and supplies (yes, there are some ways to obtain stipends but such financial support is still not across the board—a little like the haves and the have-nots all over again). What is more, quite ironically, is that many of the in-prison training programs, such as barbering, are training the incarcerated for jobs for which they are not allowed to hold after release.

What Will Prop 47 Do?

In part, what Proposition 47 will do is decriminalize specific infractions or reduce certain convictions from felonies to misdemeanors. Instead of building more prisons or shifting overcrowding from the more notorious penitentiaries to County jails, this proposition would provide over a 5-year period about $1 billion for K-12 school programs, victims’ services, mental and drug treatment programs, and so forth.

In so doing, law enforcement can concentrate on the kind of offenses that really affect our safety and security—not on petty, generally harmless, victimless crimes. More officers and better programs can help mitigate the type of crimes we all fear—murder, rape, armed robbery, child abuse, and so on. It just makes no sense to ruin forever the lives of those who have committed youthful indiscretions!

According to Professor Kareem Crayton (originally from Montgomery, Alabama, and now teaching at the University of North Carolina Law School), society as a whole seems to expect that the majority of prisoners will be people of color and oversee to them “accordingly”—it appears that most prison wardens and guards are Black and are often responsible (perhaps from self-imposed pressure) for enforcing rules more harshly for ethnic prisoners than for other inmates. Such offenders are frequently on lock-down for inconsequential infractions and are often denied essentials on a regular basis, even medications.

The fact is that one in three Black men between the ages of 18 and 35 will find their way into prison. If we do not offer attractive alternatives within their home communities, before they even think about committing a crime, these numbers will continue and are bound to increase. Crayton says that what transpires in adulthood is based on the paths we choose, and we can only choose the “right” path if our home and neighborhood environments make positive choices possible.

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As was unambiguously declared, “We can’t incarcerate our way to a better society!” We must invest in our communities and we must change our attitudes as to how to address the issues that produce and nurture a criminal climate. We must also convince those who are wary to look at solutions differently.

How do we avoid recidivism if those released come back to families who are very poor (and cannot help them) and to neighborhoods where they can find no jobs?

How do we avoid recidivism if those released come back to families who are very poor (and cannot help them) and to neighborhoods where they can find no jobs? These realities are just some reasons why we must change current laws. The formerly incarcerated (who have paid for their offenses) need to become a genuine part of a welcoming community where their spiritual as well as their educational and employment needs are met.

The fact remains that reading scores taken at the 4th grade level generally determine which young people will eventually turn to a life of crime. We cannot, therefore, afford to wait until children reach middle or high school to teach them their foundational skills (because many, by then, have already been introduced into the criminal milieu). We must begin to concentrate our efforts at the pre-school level (it is my wish to see universal-preschool a mandate across the nation)—where we can teach, even then, the three R’s and other significant skills. And at the same time, we must make sure that good health and proper nutrition programs are part of any education.

We can only turn around our crime statistics if we turn around our young people at the earliest possible age. We must offer parenting classes and hold parents and guardians responsible for laying for their children a foundation that will produce positive results.

Our Neighborhood Justice Program

Mike Feuer, our City Attorney, talked about his Community Justice Initiative which oversees the Our Neighborhood Justice Program in the second panel session, moderated by Drug Policy Alliance California Executive Director Lynne Lyman. He has partnered with a number of civic leaders here and elsewhere, such as Cyrus Vance, Jr. (New York County District Attorney), to make such programs possible. Some of the goals of these plans for low-value offenses are as follows:

  • Perpetrators who are willing to take responsibility for their actions will be eligible for participation.
  • The offenders must help effectuate change in their respective communities, like mentoring other would-be offenders, tutoring those in need of educational help and guidance, volunteering in nursing homes or for construction of community projects.
  • If they follow through and complete their obligations, they will not be subject to prosecution but will become part of alternative programs.
  • The idea is to get at the root causes that lead young people astray.

Thus, programs that address mental issues, home dysfunction, drug and alcohol use, and gang involvement are unquestionably essential. If a person understands what drives him or her, such people can turn their lives around if given the opportunity and are nurtured and guided along the way.

Too many of us are just not aware that children who witness horrible, gruesome crimes tend to be the ones who will later enter the criminal world themselves. Studies are showing that their brains simply do not develop properly after such encounters become part of their mental pathology. There is no question that we must intercede before such tragedies can transpire and provide help for those who have already had these scenes burned into their memories.

Some schools are already part of such pilot programs whose aim is to create safe pathways for walking to or returning from school; addressing child truancy issues; and focusing on minimizing gun violence (sometimes holding parents and guardians responsible and trying them as accomplices if their own guns are used in a felony).

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Cradle-to-Career Attention

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Sr. added that we must provide cradle-to-career attention for all our young people, whose formative years will shape them forever after. And might I add that before pregnancy, parents (both mother and father) ought to be taught how to follow good health and nutrition practices if they expect to give birth to a healthy child.

Interesting input was offered as well by Assemblymember Steven Bradford. He reminded us that we are becoming increasingly aware that prison time is often a matter of economics—those with money to hire the best legal advocates get the “best” justice. What is perhaps worse is that low-crime, “soft” offenders who enter these penitentiaries come out as hardened criminals who have been jumped into gang membership and are often covered with gang tattoos for identification. For them, such actions within the prison walls were a matter of survival; unwittingly, however, these same associations generally follow them outside where they are provided with few positive options for a fruitful future.

The bottom line is that we must support Proposition 47! If we really want to eliminate the root causes of many crimes, we need to recognize how this initiative will mitigate many of the issues that create them. If all people are created equal (as our Constitution clearly mandates), then we must produce legislation that will fulfill that declaration and treat all our people accordingly.

Finally, the privilege of voting must not be taken for granted. We must get out to Vote on November 4, 2014 (unless you vote by mail and have already voted). And don’t forget to vote the entire ballot, from top to bottom.

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VOTE YES ON PROPOSITION 47!

Rosemary Jenkins