Heidi Strupp

Cruel California Ballot Initiative Seeks to Keep Elderly Prisoners Locked Up Longer

Helen Loheac is 85 years old and has serious health problems which require that she go to a hospital three times weekly for dialysis because her kidneys are failing. Loheac is also in prison with a 15-year sentence for her alleged involvement in a conspiracy to commit murder, an offense where no one was killed or harmed. Although she is just 5 feet tall, weighs 90 pounds and is gravely ill, Loheac is shackled, waist chained and transported by two armed guards when she goes for dialysis. She is often confused and frightened and the prison environment is very difficult for her. Although she poses no threat to anyone, Helen was recently denied parole.

This Nov. 4, Californians will vote on Proposition 9, a measure that could create even more hardship for Helen Loheac and others like her. If Prop. 9 is passed, Helen could be denied the opportunity to re-petition for release until she turns 100. She is among 10,000 low-risk frail elders now in prison who may be denied hope of release, even as they grow older and sicker and require more costly care. Prop. 9 asks California taxpayers to foot the bill to incarcerate a group of prisoners who cost the most to confine yet pose the least threat to public safety.

Interestingly, Prop. 9 was funded by billionaire Henry T. Nicholas III, who is under federal indictment for fraud, conspiracy and drug charges. In a way, Prop. 9 would perpetrate another fraud on Californians by siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from the general fund into the already bloated state prison budget. Specifically, it would restrict prisoners' access to regular parole hearings, prohibit the state from releasing prisoners early to ease overcrowding, deny ex-prisoners accused of violating parole a right to an attorney, allow an unlimited number of victims to testify at a prisoner's parole hearing without having to answer questions from the prisoner's attorney, and could limit prisoners' access to rehabilitative programs (such as visitation, educational and vocational services) especially as funds increasingly go towards prison construction costs. Some Prop. 9 provisions duplicate a crime victim's bill already approved by voters in 1982.

By voting 'No' on Prop. 9, Californians can send a strong message that in a period of extreme budget crisis we are tired of shoveling billions into the state's notoriously troubled prison system at the expense of our schools and social service programs. Corrections now account for about 10 percent of the state's spending, which is almost as much as spending for higher education.

Voting "No" says that we believe that low-risk prisoners who've served decades in prison and cost the state millions should be released. Voting "No" on Prop. 9 leaves open the door to allow for desperately needed reforms to a prison system characterized by gross overcrowding, a failed parole system and rampant violations of prisoners' rights. It is a declaration that 30 years of tough-on-crime policies have not fulfilled the promise of true public safety.

Our current prison crisis can largely be blamed on similarly harsh policies like Prop. 184, known as the "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, which was passed in 1994. Meaningful public safety results when our schools are thriving, when our seniors are cared for and cherished, and when everyone knows the comfort of a home. Public safety begins when we decide to create laws based not on our ugliest fears, but our greatest hopes.

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