The Proposition 9 initiative gives a variety of rights to crime victims -- certainly a laudable goal, however most of these provisions merely duplicate guarantees already in force. The new provisions? Those are the troubling ones.
With its focus on keeping more prisoners incarcerated for longer periods of time, Proposition 9 would exacerbate what is already a crisis of prison overcrowding and State indebtedness. Speaking last year at UCLA School of Law, Lea Ann Chrones, the acting director of California's adult facilities, acknowledged that more than 50,000 prisoners every night slept in what she called "ugly beds," -- spaces in gyms, day rooms, chapels, and hallways.
Joe Baumann, president of the California Corrections Peace Officers Association at Norco reported, "Rehabilitation? There's no classrooms any more and no programs because we have to use all the space for housing." Coming across as concerned and humane, he asked rhetorically how it was possible to protect prisoners from violence including prison rape when "you're so overcrowded you've got body on top of body and one officer watching one hundred inmates?"
Baumann didn't advocate building more prisons or holding prisoners longer but rather releasing the people who don't belong in prison in the first place: those who would function best in community settings, halfway houses or in drug treatment; the old and infirm; the 35,000 inmates who've been identified as mentally ill and should be the responsibility of the Department of Mental Health.
Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition points out perhaps the major cause of overcrowding: 51% of people incarcerated in our State prisons are there for administrative offenses or technical (non-criminal) parole violations.
At present, you can lose parole and be sent back to prison for faults as minor as missing one appointment with a parole officer, failing to find a job (in spite of the bad economy and the reluctance of most businesses to hire ex-offenders), or associating with a known gang member -- which can be unavoidable when you live in a neighborhood where the folks next door belong to a gang or go to the same church that you do or show up at a family funeral. Proposition 9 would make it even easier to revoke someone's parole because hearsay evidence would be admissible and the parolee would not be permitted to challenge the witness's testimony. This undermining of the principle of due process should be a red-flag warning to all Americans.
The initiative amends the State Constitution and a provision tacked at the end makes it almost impossible to modify. If by some unfortunate stroke of folly Prop 9 actually goes through, the legislature would not be able to amend its provisions except by a statute passed with a three-quarter vote of both houses -- a requirement that would make it even harder to pass than our notorious hard-to-pass budget. Oh, there is one other exception. A simple majority of the legislature would suffice to expand victims' rights or make the provisions stricter and tougher.
Proposition 9 is already too tough. It would change how long prisoners wait to be considered for parole -- in many cases, as long as 15 years, and would make it harder to try for parole again after having once been turned down. It's not as though the Parole Board in this State is releasing a flood of dangerous felons into the community. And its members can't be accused of leniency -- or even rational decisionmaking.
Here's just one example I heard about from Gloria Killian. (Killian, by the way, founded the Action Committee for Women in Prison -- after she was exonerated and released after serving 16 years for a murder she did not commit.) She tells how Helen Loheac finally went before the Parole Board after serving 15 years for a "conspiracy" in which no one was harmed. A tiny woman, five foot tall, 90 pounds, Ms. Loheac had to be taken to the hospital for dialysis three times a week, transported there in shackles and waist-chains. The Board denied parole to this dangerous felon on the grounds that she had not made any plans for employment. Ms. Loheac, at the time, was 85 years old.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. She collaborated with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal on "Nightwind," about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military in Colombia, a play that has toured theatres, campuses, conferences, and houses of worship throughout the US and Canada. Other recent work for the stage includes "Majikan," a Ciona Taylor Production in New York's Central Park, about an orangutan and the War on Terror. She has picked potatoes, typed autopsy reports, surveyed parolees and drug addicts about their sex lives, and taught creative writing to gangbangers as well as, for twenty years, to graduate students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. She received the 2006-07 COLA (City of Los Angeles) literary arts fellowship in support of Phantom Heart, her novel-in-progress set in and around a beautiful Southern California nuclear waste site. She lives in Los Angeles and has never written a screenplay.
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