Criminal justice is on the ballot this election.

California voters are being called on to decide whether past ballot measures aimed at reducing incarceration statewide went too far.

Proposition 20 would introduce tougher consequences for certain crimes, and block inmates convicted of certain offenses from getting early release.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is Prop. 20?

To understand Proposition 20, one first needs to recall Propositions 47 and 57.

California voters in 2014 approved Proposition 47, which lowered the penalty for certain theft-related crimes from felony to misdemeanor.

Then, in 2016, Californians voted for Proposition 57, which changed the state constitution to make it so that inmates convicted of non-violent felonies could become eligible for release after serving the term of their primary crime.

Now, in 2020, supporters of Proposition 20 seek to roll back some of the changes enacted by those previous ballot measures.

The ballot measure would turn several misdemeanor theft offenses into potential felonies, carrying the potential for a years-long sentence.

It also would prevent people incarcerated on certain offenses from earning early release for good behavior. In addition, parole boards would be required to consider a person’s entire criminal history, not just the offense for which they are incarcerated, when considering parole.

Finally, it would crack down on repeat probation violators by requiring probation officers to ask for a change in terms of supervision, meaning more possible jail time, in the event of a third such violation.

Who wants Prop. 20 to pass?

The ballot measure is supported by law enforcement groups, including the California Police Chiefs Association and the California District Attorneys Association, retail groups such as California Grocers Association, as well as some victims rights organizations, such as Crime Victims United of California.

“Really this is a lot about preventing victimization and making sure people are being held accountable,” said Citrus Heights Police Chief Ron Lawrence, the immediate past president of the California Police Chiefs Association

Lawrence said that while the criminal justice reform of the last decade was well-intended, it resulted in a rise in thefts in the state.

The Yes on Prop. 20 campaign cites California Department of Justice statistics that show a 30% increase in thefts since Prop. 47 made $950 the threshold for felony theft.

Lawrence argued that Prop. 20 will not put any more people in prison; people convicted under offenses made into felonies would be sentenced to county jail or drug treatment, not prison, he said.

The ballot measure, if passed, would keep some people in prison who might otherwise be able to get out early. But Lawrence said that this would be for people convicted of offenses such as human trafficking of a child or exploding a bomb to injure people.

Another proponent of Prop. 20 is Bishop Ron Allen, founder of the International Faith Based Coalition, a group focused on drug use prevention, and a Sacramento-area pastor.

A recovering drug addict himself, Allen said that Proposition 20, by mandating drug treatment for certain cases, would bring help to those who otherwise wouldn’t seek it.

“I understand that if the drug addicts cannot get help from the drug courts, they’re going to go right back and do it again,” he said. “Drug addicts need help, they need tough love.”

Who is opposed to Prop. 20?

Among those opposed to Proposition 20 are groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice and the League of Women Voters of California.

Dan Seeman, a former criminal justice adviser to Govs. Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown who serves as a strategist for the No on 20 campaign, said that Proposition 20 would undo parts of the criminal justice reforms Californians have enacted over the last decade.

“This initiative, it is regressive, ill conceived and wildly expensive. And it makes us less safe for the price,” he said.

Seeman said that Proposition 20 would establish the lowest felony threshold in the country for petty theft.

“That’s draconian and completely out of whack with the rest of the country,” he said.

The ballot measure also is opposed by some district attorneys, including Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton.

Becton said that she isn’t necessarily opposed to every element of the proposition; there are parts of it she might even agree with, she said. For example, re-examining what offenses are classified as violent offenses for the purporses of inmates seeking early release.

But taken as a whole, it’s a “hodge podge” of bad ideas that will contribute to mass incarceration in the state, she said.

“This is the kind of practice that we had in our country for the last 30, 50 years, which got us to this place of being the most over-incarcerated place in the world,” Becton said.

The sisters of Polly Klaas, whose 1993 murder was the impetus for a slate of “tough on crime” laws, have also spoken out against Proposition 20, in an editorial for the Los Angeles Times.

In that column, Jess and Annie Nichol write, “Proposition 20 is an attempt by the prison industry and its allies to yet again weaponize our fear to expand their profits and their prisons.”

What the research shows

The U.S. Supreme court in 2011 ordered California to reduce its prison population. That prompted state lawmakers to approve sweeping reforms and shift responsibility for thousands of offenders from state prisons to county jails.

Those reforms, also known as “realignment,” did not release people from prison early out a back door — it closed one of the front doors and made it more difficult to end up there at all. It reclassified the way the state looked at about 500 crimes to effectively eliminate the possibility of prison time and changed the statutes throughout California law, from the penal to the motor vehicle codes.

Critics predicted the changes would inevitably lead to a spike in violent street crime. That has not happened.

Researchers have found that, while vehicle thefts increased slightly after realignment, the changes since 2011 had little to no effect on public safety.

“Statewide violent and property crime rates are roughly where they were when California began implementing these reforms,” one report from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found.

County jails felt the pressures. In the two years after realignment started, the average daily statewide jail population surged by 10,000 people, to more than 80,000. Run-down jails became more crowded and more dangerous, and the proportion of people held for felonies climbed.

As populations and tension inside county jails increased after realignment, relief came in 2014 by way of Proposition 47.

The ballot measure that downgraded an array of drug and property crimes to misdemeanors and released much of the growing pressure in the cells. The average daily statewide jail population fell when the changes took effect.

And then, in 2016, voters approved Proposition 57, another relief valve aimed at state prisons. It expanded parole eligibility for thousands of state inmates, marking another step toward downsizing prison populations.

Since then, researchers found a small decrease in violent crime, and a nearly 9% drop in property crimes, said Magnus Lofstrom, a researcher PPIC who has studied California’s criminal justice policy changes in recent years.

Car break-ins, which increased after Prop 47, increased by 3.2% between 2016 and 2019. However, motor vehicle thefts that researchers found increases as a result of realignment dropped by 20% since 2016.

There are now fewer vehicle thefts than when realignment was implemented in 2011.

“In fact,” Lofstrom said, “the number of auto thefts in 2019 was the lowest observed in California since 1976.”

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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