The United States puts a far greater share of its residents in prison than any modern democracy, and (as far as we have accurate statistics), more than any country in the world. If California wants to join the rest of the world as a country in our own right, we have a lot of work to do in reducing our own incarceration rate, which is only slightly less than the United States’—California, as country, would have the third highest incarceration rate, after the U.S. and El Salvador. And California is somewhat to blame; California passed the first “three strikes” law in the U.S. in 1994.
In recent years, California has moved to reduce its prison population (sometimes, embarrassingly, in response to federal courts). AB 109 in 2011, Prop 47 in 2014, and Prop 57 in 2016 all reduced sentences for some crimes, and changed some felonies to misdemeanors. However, these changes were not without their problems. For example, after the passage of Prop 47, we have seen an increase in misdemeanor thefts and drug usage across California. Currently under proposition 47, as long as someone steals less than $950 in value of goods it’s always considered a misdemeanor by law, no matter how many times or even how fast someone reoffends.
Because of the way Prop 47 was written, the only way a penalty reduced by Prop 47 can be increased again is by returning to the voters. Which is why we’re now voting on Prop 20. Originally, we were going to take a neutral position on Prop 20; voting on changes to previous voter-passed laws is just part of life for California voters.
However, there are two things about Prop 20 that landed us in the No camp.
First, Prop 20 creates new felony convictions and limits access to parole. This would blunt the impact of Prop 17, which ends felon disenfranchisement in California, but only for people on parole, not those in prison.
Second, Prop 20 mandates that law enforcement collects DNA from people convicted of certain misdemeanors (that is, relatively minor crimes). At a time when California’s democracy is literally under threat from an authoritarian federal administration, an authoritarian move like mandatory DNA collection, is extremely tone-deaf at best.
California badly needs to reduce our prison population, and do so in a way that is safe for the general public. The good news is that to figure out how, we can look to literally any modern democracy for examples. Rather than trying to “lead the nation” on incarceration reform, California needs to realize just how far behind we are the rest of the world, and have the humility to look outside the United States for solutions that work.
We recommend you vote No on Prop 20.