California voters will consider rolling back a host of criminal justice changes in what amounts to a referendum on whether the progressive state has become too lenient.
Proposition 20 would amend criminal sentencing and supervision laws enacted during the last administration of Gov. Jerry Brown that critics say are too favorable to criminals, while Proposition 25 could overturn a 2018 law that eliminates cash bail.
Voter sentiment on both measures is being shaped by growing public desire to change a criminal justice system that historically has treated racial minorities inequitably. Early voting begins Monday for the Nov. 3 election.
Organizations representing prosecutors and police chiefs, police unions, and several crime victims’ groups are among those that want voters to reverse portions of two previously approved ballot measures, saying they impede investigations and can free serious offenders too soon.
Proposition 47 lowered penalties for drug and property crimes in 2014, while Proposition 57 in 2016 allowed the earlier parole of most felons.
“Whether it swings the pendulum back or it sends a message the pendulum has swung too far, I think that the real question is: Do people feel safe?” said Ron Lawrence, immediate past president of the California Police Chiefs Association.
Two district attorneys, Diana Becton of Contra Costa County and Jeff Rosen of Santa Clara County, broke with their association to oppose a ballot measure Rosen said would “roll back the clock” to a get-tough-on-crime stance.
The initiative would reinstate the list of crimes for which a perpetrator’s DNA is collected, with supporters citing Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo’s capture as a prime example of why a robust DNA database is important to crime-fighting.
Organizations representing grocers and retailers are among those backing a provision that would allow repeated thefts of property worth $250 or more to be prosecuted as felonies, after business owners complained that Prop. 47’s misdemeanor penalty allows thieves to steal with impunity.
The change is aimed at organized theft rings that recognize they face little punishment if they steal up to the current $950 limit, Lawrence said: “Even if they’re caught, because it’s a misdemeanor they’re only going to get a citation with a court date. They’re not going to jail because the jail’s full.”
The initiative also would add 22 crimes to the list of those ineligible for earlier release under Prop. 57, including rape of an unconscious person. That provision drew attention after former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner spent just three months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a campus fraternity party in 2015.
The measure also would toughen parole and supervised release standards.
“These were the four very narrow parameters that swung too far, to the point where people are being harmed,” said Nina Salarno, president of Crime Victims United that backs the initiative.
Brown, who left office two years ago, put $1 million of his left-over campaign war chest into opposing the measure, primarily because it would undercut the 2016 initiative he championed to reduce the state prison population. About 80% of those considered for earlier parole are denied release, but Brown said that just the possibility “encourages people to turn their life around.”
Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice California state director Tinisch Hollins said her group opposes the measure because it would disproportionately affect racial minorities. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst projects it could boost criminal justice costs by tens of millions of dollars, money that she said would be wasted on more incarceration.
Property crime briefly ticked upward after Proposition 47 and after California began holding less serious offenders in county jails instead of state prisons under another Brown-backed legal change in 2011, but then continued a decades-long downward trend.
Meanwhile, voters had a partial taste of a justice system without cash bail last spring when the state eliminated bail for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to protect suspects from catching the coronavirus.
The change reduced jail populations by more than 20,000 suspects, which Californians for Safety and Justice founder Lenore Anderson said demonstrates just how many people are detained for low-level offenses. But police and prosecutors soon began highlighting cases where newly freed suspects were arrested for new crimes.
If voters enact the new law, no one would pay bail and most misdemeanor suspects would remain free before trial.
But those suspected of felonies or misdemeanor domestic violence, sex offenses or driving while intoxicated would be evaluated for their perceived risk of committing another crime or not appearing in court. Most would eventually be released, unless they are accused of certain crimes like murder or arson, or if a judge finds there are no conditions like electronic monitoring that could assure their appearance at future hearings.
Lawmakers also added safeguards against racial biases in statistical models that would help court officials decide who could be safely released, Democratic state Sen. Bob Hertzberg said.
Brown signed Hertzberg’s bill into law before the bail industry collected enough signatures to put it on hold until voters weigh in, and opponents including the NAACP say the risk assessments would still be biased against racial minorities and the poor.
Critics fear “the computer algorithm would let people out of jail who have no business being free and would hold people in jail who have no business being held,” said former Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto, speaking for opponents.
Researchers at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that the new process would likely release “more people from jail more quickly but does not address existing racial inequity in release decisions,” particularly for Blacks.
The Legislative Analyst says the new process could cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually while cutting county jail costs by tens of millions of dollars.
The current system favors “people who are guilty but rich over those that happen to be innocent but poor,” said Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who is among supporters.