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Reset the scales of CA justice

By Laura Magnani

Tuesday’s split decision by California voters on two criminal justice propositions—soundly approving amending the three-strike law and narrowly maintaining the death penalty—reflects an electorate inching its way toward a reset of its justice system.

Voters approved Proposition 36, which amended the state’s notorious three-strike law to allow nonviolent third strikers to have their sentences reviewed so that offenders whose third strikes were minor could no longer be given 25 years to life in prison. 

In a close count, 53 percent of voters rejected Proposition 34, which would have replaced execution with a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole. Since only a few years ago, polls showed support for the death penalty in the 60 to 70 percent range, this outcome represents a significant movement to a positive direction.

Californians’ rethinking of the three-strike law coincides with the state’s recent multibillion dollar deficits. Taxpayers are beginning to look closely at budget priorities, and whether we are spending our public money wisely. The prison system is a good place to look.

With 141,000 people in the state’s prisons, and a court order requiring officials to shrink the population to 137.5 percent of capacity, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is hopeful that the state’s incarceration binge may have reached its tipping point.

Although more than 25 jurisdictions currently have some kind of three-strike law, none are as extreme as California’s. The stories of people doing a 25year to life sentence for petty theft abound: Just ask Leandro Andrade. The father of three languishes in California state prison with two consecutive life sentences for shoplifting nine children's videos on two occasions in November 1995. “Bernice” is a 59 year old grandmother who is dying of cancer in the women’s prison. She was convicted in 1998 of possession of $10 worth of illegal drugs, and because she had two priors, was sentenced as a third striker.

According to the Voter Information Guide 2012 handbook, Proposition 34 would have saved taxpayers $100-130 million annually, and Proposition 36 will save $70-90 million annually. More importantly, it moves the state in a direction away from exclusively punitive solutions and opens the door to more restorative justice policies.

This trend has been showing itself in a variety of arenas in the past year—not only in California but around the U.S. For example, AFSC has been sounding the alarm about the widespread use of solitary confinement since the early 1980s, when whole institutions were being built for the purpose of long term isolation. But in 2011, when prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison, near the Oregon border, called a hunger strike to call attention to conditions of confinement, the press and public began to take notice.

The issue has now been prioritized by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is challenging the constitutionality of Security Housing Units (SHU); Amnesty International, which published a scathing report about the use of solitary in California, and by the ACLU. Legislative hearings have been held at local and national levels. Although we have still not seen significant changes in the way people are sent to the SHU, or the length of time they are kept there, momentum is clearly building in a positive direction.

In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that overcrowding in California prisons is preventing the prison system from providing constitutional levels of health and mental health care.

A real reduction in the number of people in the state prison system is starting to roll out, and people are beginning to reject incarceration as the best and only solution to a broad range of social problems. We urge other states to join California as we begin the road to restorative justice.  

Laura Magnani, assistant regional director for the American Friends Service Committee, has been working on prison issues for about 40 years. She is the author of the 2006 “Beyond Prisons” examination of the U.S.’s overuse of incarceration.

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