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California Youth Defeat ‘Lock ‘em Up’ Politics

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev // Photos: Alvaro Alvarez Posted: Nov 08, 2008

Editor’s Note: While Californians battle over gay marriage, and collectively rejoice at their new president, the biggest change in history ushered in by voters may be the one that didn't make the news. The quintessential “tough on crime” initiative, Proposition 6, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters across the state, representing a shift from “lock 'em all up” politics that has dominated the state for decades. Raj Jayadev credits the change to a grassroots youth movement and the high voter turnout of youth and people of color. Jayadev is the director of Silicon Valley De-Bug.

Eclipsed by the enormity of a nation voting in a black President, and a statewide cultural war over gay marriage, is that fact that California registered one the most dramatic and significant shifts in attitude over incarceration policies in state history this past election.

The quintessential “tough on crime” initiative, Proposition 6, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters across the state, a count of 70 percent to 30 percent, and did not win a majority in a single county. With little news coverage, and no commercials on either side leading up to the election, the trouncing of Prop. 6 was a near unadulterated reflection of California's new mind-set on criminal justice policies. The numbers point to a repudiation of “lock 'em all up” politics that has dominated the state for decades.

Prop. 6 was an ambitious, catch-all initiative that targeted youth, immigrants, and even families of those who had been involved in the criminal justice system. The proposition would have created more than 30 changes in the law. It would have turned some nonviolent misdemeanors into felonies, dramatically increased prison sentences for "gang-related" crimes, put 14-year-olds in the adult system, mandated regular criminal background checks on families in public housing with aims of removal, and denied bail to undocumented immigrants facing certain felony charges. It would have cost an estimated $965 million to fund annually.

But as far-reaching, perhaps even arrogant, of an attempt Prop. 6 was to balloon incarceration rates, proponents knew they were facing good odds given the track record of previous tough on crime proposals. The three strikes law, that doubles sentences for second offenses, and gives life on their third, was passed by voters in 1994 with numbers inversely mirroring the Prop. 6 results (72 percent in favor), and has withstood repeated legal and legislative attempts to be removed. Prop. 21 passed in 2000 despite the birth of a California youth movement that fought tooth and nail to defeat it. That proposition further cemented anti-gang laws and lowered the age for minors to be convicted and sentenced as adults. It won with the approval of more than 60 percent of voters.

Ironically, though, it may have been the consequences of these tough on crime laws that caused voters to depart from their previous voting pattern.

California, upon the governor's orders, is in a Prison Overcrowding State of Emergency. The legislature was forced to authorize $7.7 billion to create more beds at state prisons over the next 10 years. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state's prison population is more than 170,000 inmates housed in facilities designed for 100,000.

Proponents of tough crime laws typically extol their proposals by arguing that they would "take more criminals off the street," but, more accurately, they just put more people in prison – to a point well beyond the state’s infrastructure capacity and budget.

Any policy that would increase prison rates, given the current crisis, would seem irrational. And with the financial crisis facing California, plus the $8 billion for prisons we still need to come up with, any proposition with a billion dollar price tag was going to be a hard sell -- whether it was beds for prisons, or even books for kids.

But outside of the fiscal argument against Prop. 6, California has been witness to the devastating impact of tough on crime laws on communities of color. Statewide, roughly 75 percent of those serving second and third-strike sentences are minorities. In Santa Clara County, black youths are arrested at a rate of seven times their proportion in the general population. Any new law that would increase incarceration would simultaneously increase the conscience-shocking racial disproportionality as well.

And of course we knew who was at the polls this time around: youth and people of color – those more likely to know firsthand how prison destroys families, those more likely to know personally the man given his third strike for stealing a candy bar, or the juvenile who is deemed a gang member just because he liked a certain sport team or was from a certain neighborhood. Indeed, the contradiction would be too large for an electorate to overwhelmingly vote for a black man to be president, yet at the same time seal the fate of thousands of black men to a life behind bars.

Many families who were victims of three strikes and Prop. 21 – having learned how quickly a public policy can become a personal nightmare – also became the most vocal advocates against Prop. 6.

Without the gloss of a campaign public relations firm, their efforts took on the dynamism and energy of a movement rather than a campaign. Immigrant youth, the same group that in 2006 sparked the largest protest marches in this country's history, already knew what tactics worked. Young people from East Palo Alto sent weekly fact texts like, "Did you know Prop. 6 would lock up youth as adults? Pass it on." In San Jose, they held rallies in front of the jails, calling out their relatives’ names, and getting inmates to flash their lights on and off to signal their support. Across the state, youth posted YouTube videos, made rap songs and MySpace pages.

While Californians battle among themselves over gay marriage, and collectively rejoice and marvel at their new president, the biggest change in history ushered in by voters may be the one that didn't make the news.

The impact may be felt across the country in coming years. We know from three strikes, Prop. 21, and anti-gang laws that originate from California that such proposals become the template laws for other states and even federal legislation if they make the grade in California. Currently, more than half of all the states in the country now have anti-gang laws that are based on the language of California legislation, and there are eight similar proposals pending in Congress.

Stopping Prop. 6 may be have the biggest "change" that never made headlines.

Photos by Alvaro Alvarez

Related Articles:

Proposition 6 -- Ineffective, Racially Biased and Morally Dangerous

Mo Money, Mo Prisons

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