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Proposition 6 -- Ineffective, Racially Biased and Morally Dangerous

Silicon Valley DeBug , Commentary//Photos//Video, Words: Raj Jayadev//Photos: Alvaro Alvarez and Tiburon//Video: Debug Staff Posted: Oct 31, 2008

Just as California's overcrowded prison system is collapsing under its own weight, and our state reels from a budget crisis couched in a global financial calamity, proponents of Proposition 6 would have voters believe that they've found the answer to our problems incarcerate our way back to security.

Deceptively named the Safe Neighborhoods Act, Proposition 6 is a sledgehammer of an initiative that plays upon the public's fears and carries a price tag well beyond our means taking nearly a billion dollars a year from California's general fund and giving it to law enforcement, prisons and jails.

But forget about the economic irresponsibility of Proposition 6 or even the hypocrisy of its original backer, Henry Nicholas III, being indicted on a charge of having drug-fueled parties with prostitutes on his jet. This initiative sinks us deeper down an abyss of failed policing and sentencing laws that are ineffective, racially biased and morally dangerous.

The initiative would create over 30 changes in the law, turning some non-violent misdemeanors into felonies, and significantly increase sentencing for "gang-related" crimes. These penalties are an extension of gang enhancement laws that have existed in California since 1988, brought about by a knee-jerk reaction to crime that is now being re-evaluated, having been called a "thicket of statutory construction" by the California Supreme Court. The core problem is the standard for what constitutes a "gang-related" crime. A defendant does not have to be a member of a gang, but merely shown to have committed a crime "for the benefit" of the gang.

This standard is leading to climbing, unjust conviction rates.

In 2007, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office reported 101 gang-related felony charges in adult court, and already has 95 cases in 2008. While the office does not track such cases along racial lines, statewide most strike-enhanced sentences are given to ethnic minorities. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice says 74 percent of those serving second- and third-strike sentences are minorities.

But more disturbing is Proposition 6's proposal to try defendants as young as 14 years old as adults if charged with a gang-related felony.

According to a Juvenile Justice Commission report, over 80 percent of the youth in Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall are people of color. Black youths are arrested at a rate of seven times their proportion in the general population. Without confronting the racial disparity in our criminal justice system, any law that increases incarceration will only exacerbate the problem.

We all want safer neighborhoods, but we need to get to the root cause of the problems. Proposition 6 would handcuff California to a billion-dollar burden that we can ill afford for more reasons than money.

A version of his piece first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

Raj Jayadev is the director of Silicon Valley Debug.

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