Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Proposition 6, some information and opinion

The November 2008 election seems certain to have record high turnout and interest, not only for the general Presidential election, but also for California's vote on Proposition 8, which would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. However, it seems to me that Proposition 6, or the "Runner Initiative," is getting lost in the shuffle, so to speak. So, I wanted to post some information about Prop 6, and then offer my opinion.

The Basics: Prop 6 has been nicknamed the "Safe Neighborhoods Act," and purports to be a "comprehensive anti-gang and crime reduction measure that will bring more cops and increased safety to our streets and greater efficiency and accountability to public safety programs and agencies that spend taxpayer money." Among the elements of Prop 6 are:
1. Require all defendants 14 and older charged with gang crimes to be deemed unfit for detention in a youth center, and charged as an adult;
2. Impose 10-year penalty increase for "gang-related" crimes and for carrying loaded or concealed firearms in public, and increase penalties for use and possession for sale of methamphetamine to the same level as cocaine penalties;
3. Eliminate bail for undocumented aliens charged with "gang-related" crimes;
4. Require all occupants of public-housing to submit to yearly criminal background checks, and if any family member does not pass the check, all family members are removed from public housing;
5. Allow use of hearsay statements when a witness to a "gang-related" crime is unavailable at trial;
6. Establish a reimbursement program for providing information that leads to an arrest or conviction;
7. Provide funds for GPS tracking of gang-offenders, sex-offenders, and other violent crime offenders

Funding: Prop 6 does not include any new taxes, but instead will divert money from California's "General Fund." The funds would be diverted from K-12 Education, Higher Education, Health and Human Services, Transportation and Housing, and Environmental Protection. There will be an estimated cost of $500 million, annually, for increased funding of criminal justice programs and prison and parole operations, and a one time capital outlay of $500 million to prisons. Prop. 6 would add $365 million dollars, from the General Fund, to the already $600 million allotted to "law enforcement" in the current budget, and prohibit any money from being directly distributed to mental health, drug treatment, and other county programs providing treatment to juveniles. Incidentally, Prop. 6's largest contributor--at $1 million in donations--Henry Nicholas, was indicted for felony drug conspiracy in October 2007. On June 16, 2008, he was arraigned on a number of drug, sex, conspiracy, and securities fraud charges, with investigation revealing a "sex cave," "fully stocked warehouse of drugs," and "a brothel's worth of prostitutes on the payroll."

Opinion: I'll keep my opinion comments brief, because I'd like people to make their own conclusions, and the main impetus for this post was just raising awareness of what Prop. 6 is. The above factors 1-7 are the actual aims of the initiative, absent any partisan presentation or "spin." I think arguments can be made about the efficacy of each of those aims and whether they can be accomplished without more people getting caught up in the net than necessary. The only comments I'll add as a matter of opinion are these:
1. How on earth are we going to fund this? We are already in a complete budget crisis, and now we're going to apply $500 million in capital to our prisons. After that, we're going to spend $500 million a year to institute these programs--with absolutely no focus on deterrence or prevention, but only enforcement and punishment. And let's not forget the $365 from the current budget to be taken from funding for education and health care. The cynic inside me asks, "Won't the money funneled into the prison system go, in part, towards education and health care for prison inmates? So law abiding people in public schools and health clinics get less funding, and instead the money is diverted, by Prop. 6, to people who are put in prison based on Prop. 6. How backwards is that?"
2. While it seems clear that the spending from Prop. 6 will go entirely towards enforcement and punishment, not diversion or prevention, proponents of the initiative will argue that it will have a deterrent effect, and there will be a residual reduction in crime. However, this initiative is aimed, principally, at youthful offenders. Kids with too little supervision at home, too much time on the streets, too little education, and too few after school and community programs. It's no surprise that kids with no supervision and no education turn to gangs and crime. So how, then, do we prevent crime amongst youth gang members by stripping funds from education and after-school programs? How do we reduce crime by throwing the family members of a criminal offender out of their public housing? Isn't it more likely we can prevent crime through more, not less, social support? By funding before and after school programs, youth activities leagues, and making sure the children and family members of offenders have a place to live so they can put their life back in order? The reality is the only way something like Prop. 6 works is if we just keep everyone in prison for the rest of their lives, even for comparatively minor offenses--a proposal I'm not sure reactionary voters would oppose, despite the aim of the penal system being the twin goals of retribution and rehabilitation. But the ironic (or sad, depending on your viewpoint) thing is that we as a society simply wind up draining our economy supporting our already bloated prison system, at the expense of our own education, our own healthcare, and programs truly aimed at crime prevention.

A lawyer I respect greatly was once asked about California's criminal laws, and he labeled California, "The harshest state in the harshest country in the Western world." An initiative like Prop. 6, labeled so enticingly as the impossible-to-vote-against "Safe Neighborhoods Act," is yet another in a long line of examples of the truth in that statement.

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