Whereas the traditional legislative process is a dialogue, a ballot initiative is more of a monologue. California’s easiest-in-the-nation rules make it possible to pass an initiative without substantive discussion or broad consensus, as long as the proponent has the money to qualify one.
Largely absent from the initiative process is the chance for opponents, experts, the public and the media to express their thoughts to the drafters and seek amendments. Once an initiative qualifies for the ballot, there are no opportunities to change it, even if someone identifies a serious shortcoming. In theory, the electorate can vote “no” — if we notice an error. But once an initiative passes — if errors have gone unnoticed — the Legislature is generally powerless to fix them. Since deficiencies often manifest years later, this has produced misshapen policies for California.
2014’s Proposition 47, which mandated that prosecutors could no longer charge certain crimes as felonies, provides the clearest example of this style of poor policymaking. There are at least four problematic ramifications of Prop. 47, some which were foreseeable before passage, and some which were not. Shame on those who promoted it, despite those uncertainties. And shame on policymakers for not fixing the deficiencies, now that they are so clear.
First, because our overburdened criminal-justice system rarely requires those convicted of misdemeanors to serve any time, Prop. 47 hasn’t really reduced the punishments for these crimes, as much as it has eliminated them. Word of this has spread, and criminals act accordingly. Stores report shoplifters meticulously calculating the value of goods to pilfer, so as to come just under the threshold to qualify for Prop. 47 leniency. And in the rare instances when a shoplifter is arrested, they are often right back at the same store the next day.
Second, Prop. 47 has profoundly affected our state’s DNA database, used to solve the most serious crimes, like rape and murder. Criminals have asked the courts to destroy their DNA samples, which are already in the state’s system, under the theory Prop. 47’s re-classification of their crimes means that the original sampling, which was perfectly legal when performed, should be retrospectively deemed improper. Moreover, by significantly reducing the list of crimes that require DNA sampling, Prop. 47 has also helped many violent criminals evade responsibility for other criminal acts
Third, Prop. 47 has destroyed our state’s drug-rehabilitation infrastructure, because it has destroyed judges’ ability to threaten consequences to coax a repeat drug offender into rehab. Previously, the specter of a felony conviction made many choose to accept court-appointed help. Now, with no such threat, convicts with serious drug problems fail to receive the help they need. Thus, Prop. 47 has hurt the very people it was designed to help.
Finally, Prop. 47 made the theft of most handguns — even if the handgun is later used in a murder — a misdemeanor. My father was murdered in 2013, and like many urban murders, his was committed with a handgun. The Los Angeles Police Department believes my father’s killer was a petty criminal and thief, the type of person who often uses cheaply acquired, previously stolen handguns. The thought that someone could have stolen a gun, and sold it to my father’s killer, but under Prop. 47, would likely never spend a day in jail was quite troubling to me. Thankfully this loophole has been closed, but many others remain.
All of these deficiencies involve the complex interplay of Prop. 47 with other laws and realities. It’s almost beside the point to remind that some of us noticed these problems before it passed. The jingoism of a statewide ballot-proposition campaign doesn’t always produce thoughtful reflection or debate. For the moment, this is our reality: the public did not notice the deficiencies and neither did the proponents — or they did, but chose to proceed anyway.
The question before us is, now that these (and other) issues are manifest, what will California do? Hopefully, we fix Prop. 47, and remember to hesitate a little before the next initiative proponent tries to sell us a false panacea.
|Chowchilla News Day
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