Two Paths to Criminal Justice

“Joe” is being held at Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif., awaiting the outcome of his criminal charges. He is one of thousands of young African American men from Oakland whose life depends on one judge's decision. He will either spend 25 years to life in a California state prison or be released back to the streets where he came from. While life outside has its own set of problems, it beats the hell out of life in prison. So Joe prays, volunteers for work duty, takes GED and employability classes, and otherwise does “good time” until he knows his fate.

I met Joe doing voter education outreach in Santa Rita Jail. First and foremost, the law organization I work for wanted to spread the gospel of voting to those incarcerated in the county jails. Despite the fact that California doesn't have a law banning ex-felons, people on probation, or people in county jails from voting, the vast majority of folks in these situations believe that they aren't allowed to vote. California law explicitly allows people on probation or in jails to vote at the same time it disenfanchises people on parole or in prison. The second reason I was in the jail was to let inmates know about two state-wide propositions that could greatly impact their lives: Propositions 66 and 69.

Proposition 66 is designed to roll back some of the harsher effects of the 1994 Three Strikes Law, passed overwhelming by California voters in the wake of the brutal kidnapping and murder of young Polly Klaas. Californians believed that the law would put violent and serious offenders behind bars. But it turned out that more than half of the people convicted under the Three Strikes law are convicted for non-violent crimes. Proposition 66 would change the Three-Strikes law so that it would apply only to people who are convicted of murder, rape, robbery or other violent crimes as well as those that assault or sell drugs to minors. The “new and improved” Three Strikes would reflect what the voters who supported it in 1994 truly intended. It would also end California's dubious honor of having the harshest Three Strikes law in the nation. Proposition 66 isn't just supported by civil libertarians, it's also endorsed by unexpected others including Joe Klaas, Polly Klaas' grandfather, and the San Francisco Black Police Officers Association.

I spoke with Joe and 50 to 60 other men and women taking classes in Santa Rita Jail about Proposition 66. Joe and most of the others that I talked with thought the changes made sense. They talked about how imprisoning people for long years for nonviolent crimes doesn't really stop crime, breaks up families and costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year. California has, by far the largest prison system in the nation. The national average for corrections spending is less than one billion per year. California spends nearly seven billion. This doesn't include the social and financial costs to families and children with incarcerated parents.

Joe also likes Proposition 66 because it's retroactive. People who were convicted of non-violent or not serious felonies may apply for a resentencing hearing that could reduce the time they will be imprisoned. Everyone I spoke with knew someone – themselves, their family members, friends or neighbors – who would be impacted by the change in the law. They and their loved ones are some of the thousands in California who may be eligible for rehearings if the law passes. Proposition 66 gives hope to Joe and his fellow inmates that they could some day disentangle themselves from the criminal justice system and begin to live full and productive lives.

Proponents of Proposition 66 believe that it offers an opportunity for voters who supported the original Three Strikes law, but have found it to be too extreme in it is implementation, to refine it without losing the power to punish repeat, violent offenders. They also feel that Proposition 66 will end a huge waste of precious taxpayer dollars. Opponents, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a host of district attorneys and sheriffs, believe Proposition 66 will weaken law enforcement capabilities and release dangerous criminals back to the community. I left it to the class to decide for themselves, although most of the inmates' views were in line with the current polls: that the lengthy, determinate sentencing of Three Strikes should be reserved only for the most serious, violent felonies.

For the last 50 years, California has operated under a law enforcement model that has meant billions spent on prison construction, billions on arresting, convicting, and jailing poor young people of color, but has put nothing towards the underlying causes of crime, crime prevention, rehabilitation or re-entry. Joe and other inmates felt that Proposition 66 was a step, however small, away from that extremely punitive “crime suppression” model that has taken over not just California but the entire country.

Californians may choose to take this step on Nov. 2, however they also have a proposition on the ballot that would be a step in the other direction. Proposition 69 is firmly rooted in the crime suppression/punitive model. It would expand the people from whom the state law enforcement can collect, store and test DNA. Currently, the law already requires DNA to be collected from people convicted of serious or violent felonies, as well as all state prison inmates. Proposition 69 would expand the DNA database to include any adult or kid arrested for any felony offense – even if the person is later proven innocent, suffered a case of mistaken identity, or is never charged with a crime. The proposed law doesn't provide any guarantees that this information would not be used or tested for purposes other than law enforcement.

When I brought up Proposition 69 with the inmates in Santa Rita jail, one of them asked, “What about the fact that we're 'innocent until proven guilty'?” If passed, Proposition 69 would require the collection of DNA data from hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom would prove to be innocent of any criminal charges. In 2003, for example, one- third of the 507,000 people arrested in California on some felony charge had the charges dismissed or eventually were found not guilty. DNA is some of your most personal information. Unlike a fingerprint, DNA carries intimate knowledge about your health and your predisposition for certain diseases. Nothing in Proposition 69 adequately protects a person's basic right to privacy or prevents this information from being shared with other agencies.

Opponents of Proposition 69, such as Maya Harris of the ACLU of Northern California, believe that it “is a dangerous and unnecessary expansion of government power.” Moreover, it will be a costly and burdensome venture that will not achieve the goal of improving crime solving, as touted by proponents. Proponents include the governor and California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer. They argue that the collection of those arrested for felonies would make California safer and that provisions insure that innocent people can apply to remove their DNA from the system. However, to remove your DNA requires a complex appeals process that would require legal representation, the cost of which would make this remedy prohibitive for many.

At the end of the two classes I helped teach at Santa Rita jail, we had registered around 40 voters. Most of them were going to vote for the first time in their lives. Some of the participants wanted to register, but couldn't because they are not citizens. Others simply said they did not want to participate in a system that they feel is racist and has done nothing but oppress them. Several days after the class, I received a letter from Joe. He wrote that he was grateful to know that he had the right to vote and he was glad to be able exercise that right on issues that directly impact him and his community. Reading Joe's letter, I cannot help but imagine if all those arrested or on probation across the country knew their voting rights. Because of their situation, the people I spoke with in Santa Rita had unique insight into the affects of Propositions 66 and 69 on their communities. Armed with enough knowledge, and the ability to vote and use it, they can not only impact what laws are passed, but also what laws are proposed.




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