California votes to keep criminal justice changes

(RICHARD BOUHET/AFP via Getty Images)

California has upheld several criminal justice changes, endorsing recent efforts to ease mass incarceration by reducing penalties and allowing for earlier releases. Voters also appeared likely to maintain the state’s current cash bail system as a majority opted for the status quo on both criminal justice ballot measures.

Voters on Tuesday defeated Proposition 20, rejecting supporters’ pleas to address what they called the “unintended consequences” of two previously approved ballot measures.

One lowered penalties for drug and property crimes in 2014, while the second two years later allowed the earlier parole of most felons.

Voters by a 63% to 37% margin rejected proposals that would have barred criminals convicted of certain serious offenses from earlier release, increased penalties for repeated retail thefts, toughened parole standards and allowed for broader DNA collections.

Opponents said the measure would have set back reforms just as the nation focuses on a criminal justice system that has treated people of color inequitably.

Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice that backed the reforms, called the proposition’s defeat “a significant milestone in California’s ongoing effort to make its criminal justice system more effective” and said it would advance national reform efforts.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown championed the 2016 ballot measure that allowed most felons to seek earlier parole and put $1 million of his remaining campaign funds into contesting Proposition 20.

Brown previously has said the ballot measure partially compensated for one of his biggest mistakes when he was first governor in the 1970s and 1980s and signed a get-tough sentencing law in 1977.

The reform voters adopted four years ago made parole more achievable, “which up until 1978 was the essence of modern prison policy in California,” Brown said during a virtual election night event organized by Jordan’s group. “It gave people an incentive and everything in the prison was oriented toward rehabilitation because that determined when you got out.”

Organizations representing police chiefs, prosecutors, police unions and several crime victims’ groups had said they support reforms but the recent laws went too far.

“We just weren’t able to educate as many Californians as we’d hoped on how Prop. 20 would tackle violent crime and retail theft,” Richard Temple, political consultant for Proposition 20, said in admitting defeat.

It would have added 22 crimes to the list of those ineligible for earlier release under the 2016 ballot measure and toughened parole and supervised release standards. It also would have reinstated the list of crimes for which a perpetrator’s DNA is collected.

Finally, it would have allowed repeated thefts of property worth $250 or more to be prosecuted as felonies. Police and business owners said the 2014 ballot measure’s misdemeanor penalty allows organized theft rings to repeatedly steal up to the $950 limit knowing that they likely face only a citation and no jail time.

Voters were also leaning toward keeping the state’s current cash bail system, with 55% rejecting a law passed in 2018 that would substitute risk assessments to decide who should remain in jail awaiting trial. The law stalled when the bail industry went to the ballot box.

Even some prominent civil rights groups agreed the system is broken but said the proposed fix might be even worse because it relies on risk assessments that The Bail Project says “codify systemic racism and could lead to higher rates of incarceration in some jurisdictions.”

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles who wrote the law, said before Election Day that ending cash bail would put California “on the path to a more fair and more safe justice system that treats everyone equally under the law.”

While most states recently have altered their pretrial release laws or policies, voters’ approval of Proposition 25 would make California “the only state with a complete prohibition on fiscal conditions of release,” according to National Conference of State Legislatures criminal justice expert Amber Widgery.

Under the new system, no one would pay bail and most misdemeanor suspects would remain free.

Those charged with 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 ensure their appearance at future hearings.