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Feature: Sentencing Reform Initiative Defeated in California, "Tough on Crime" Initiatives Win in Oregon

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #559)
Politics & Advocacy

Tough on crime can still trump smart on crime, if Tuesday's elections results on sentencing initiatives in two of the nation's most progressive states are any indication. In Oregon, voters approved two competing initiatives that will increase sentences and prison populations, while in California, a multi-million dollar campaign to dramatically reform sentencing went down in the face of opposition from prison guards and politicians, and another initiative that will see longer sentences and more prisoners was approved by voters.

overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from
In California, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Campaign for New Drug Policies pumped nearly $8 million into the effort to pass Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offenders Rehabilitation Act (NORA). NORA would have deepened and vastly expanded the "treatment not jail" sentencing reforms passed in 2001 as Prop. 36. While the Legislative Analyst's Office estimated it would cost $1 billion a year to implement, it also estimated that it would save $1 billion a year in prison costs, as well as $2.5 billion in savings from prisons that would not have to be built.

NORA had the near unanimous support of the drug treatment community, as well as the League of Women Voters of California, the Children's Defense Fund-California, the California Nurses Association, the California Federation of Teachers, the California Society of Addiction Medicine, the California State Conference of the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, among others.

But a deep-pocketed opposition led by five current and former governors whose policies helped to create California's seemingly never-ending prison crisis and financed largely by the people who most directly benefit from increased prison populations, the California prison guards' union, undermined public support for NORA. The measure was also opposed by another group whose ox would have been gored, the drug court professionals -- arguably a part of the treatment community, but just as arguably a part of the law enforcement community. Several prominent state newspapers and actor Martin Sheen joined the opposition as well.

"It is a great threat to our neighborhoods," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at a news conference featuring the assembled governors outside the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles last Thursday. "It was written by those who care more about the rights of criminals."

The measure "will cost dollars and it will cost lives," chimed in former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, neglecting to mention that it would have saved many more dollars than it would have cost.

It wasn't just the governors. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Attorney General Jerry Brown, also Democrats, opposed the measure too, and taped TV commercials against it. "Say no to drug dealers," Feinstein said in her ad, while Brown -- whose spot was paid for by the prison guards union -- called it "a complicated measure" that would "limit court authority over drug dealers and addicts who refuse treatment."

All told, the organized opposition pumped nearly $3.6 million into defeating NORA, more than half of it coming from the prison guards' union. And it worked -- on election day, NORA went down to defeat by a margin of 61% to 39%.

In a statement Tuesday evening when the outcome became apparent, Yes on 5 campaign spokeswoman Margaret Dooley-Sammuli laid the defeat at the door of the opposition. "Today we saw special interests overpower the public interest," she said. "California's prison guards poured millions of dollars into stopping Prop. 5 and securing this victory for the poison politics of crime."

Stopping NORA would be a pyrrhic victory, Dooley-Sammuli predicted, citing a looming federal court hearing on whether to take control of the overcrowded, under-budgeted prison system.

"The prosecutors and prison guards who led the campaign against Prop. 5 got their way tonight -- but they've really lost. The next step for our prisons will probably be a federal takeover. Prop. 5 was Californians' last, best chance to avoid a takeover and make our own choices about how to address prison overcrowding. Now federal judges are likely to impose solutions that no one will be happy about."

The effort to pass NORA was "not in vain," Dooley-Sammuli added. "Prop. 5 presented a vision for a future in which we do more for young people with drug problems, and improve the way we provide court-supervised treatment in California. There is plenty to build on going forward," she said.

But Golden State voters were still seduced by the "tough on crime" message that has played so well in California since the days of Ronald Reagan. While defeating NORA, they passed Proposition 9, also known as the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, by a margin of 53% to 47%. Naturally enough, the measure is concerned primarily with victims' rights, but also includes provisions that block local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the state fund corrections costs as much as necessary to accomplish that end. It also lengthens the amount of time a prisoner serving a life sentence who has been denied parole must wait before re-applying. Currently, he must wait one to five years; under Prop. 9, he must wait three to 15 years. Prop. 9 would also allow parolees who have been jailed for alleged parole violations to be held 15 days instead of the current 10 before they are entitled to a hearing to determine if they can be held pending a revocation hearing, and stretches from 35 to 45 the number of days they could be held before such a hearing. These last two provisions, as well as one limiting legal counsel for parolees, all conflict with an existing federal court order governing California's procedures.

But if "tough on crime" still sells, another measure, Proposition 6, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, was too hard-sell even for California's crime-weary electorate. That measure, which was aimed primarily at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, also included provisions increasing penalties for methamphetamine possession, possession with intent, and distribution to be equal to those for cocaine, and provided for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. The measure also mandates increased spending for law enforcement. It lost 69% to 31%.

"Tough on crime" worked this year in Oregon, too, with two competing measures that would ratchet up sentences and prison populations both passing. Measure 57, a legislative measure placed before the voters, and Measure 61, the brainchild of inveterate Oregon crime-fighter and initiative-generator Kevin Mannix, won with 61% and 51% of the vote, respectively.

The Mannix measure, the tougher of the two, would have set mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including drug sales, and is projected to add between 4,000 and 6,000 new inmates to the prison system over the next five years at a cost of between $500 million and $800 million. But because it garnered fewer votes than Measure 57, the latter is the one that will actually become law.

Measure 57 increases some sentences for repeat offenders and includes funding for behind-bars drug treatment. It is estimated to generate 1,670 additional prisoners over the next five years at a cost of $411 million, as well as requiring the state to borrow another $314 million for new prison construction.

Even with the national economy in a free-fall and state budgets increasingly feeling the squeeze, it looks like it's still easier to win with the politics of fear than with the politics of justice and compassion.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Prop 2 passed with about the same margin that by which Prop 5 failed. Humane treatment seems to be more important for the beasts than for our fellow human beings...

Fri, 11/07/2008 - 12:51pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

LOVE IT Californians, now we all have to pay the price, your "Tough on crime" laws will increase our TAXES, cut our children’s education and elderly/retired benefits (immediate $2.5-billion cut from schools and community colleges. And state workers would be required to take a day off without pay each month, as well as to sacrifice two of their state holidays And the governor proposed canceling dental insurance for poor adults on the state's MediCal program and lowering subsidies to the aged, blind and disabled. California's welfare subsidies also would be reduced.
SO keep the PRISON INDUSTRY rolling. Keep on Sacrificing your children/grandchildren/old parents/grandparents...... You deserve what you vote for!!!!

Fri, 11/07/2008 - 12:52pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Oregon fought hard to create an option to Kevin Mannix's expensive, destructive mandatory minimum Measure 61. The Legislature referred Measure 57 as an alternative, because polling showed that Measure 61 could win. Many of us had to hold our noses to vote for 57, but it is certainly better than what we could have had. From the Partnership for Safety and Justice (formerly Western Prison Project):

Measure 61 Bites the Dust

Mannix’s Mandatory Madness – Measure 61 – will be defeated!!

With 95% of the returns in, Measure 61 is losing by about 30,000 votes among well over 1.5 million votes cast. This is a narrow but incredibly important defeat.

With Measure 61 receiving less than 50% of the vote, we can and should say, and very loudly, that Oregonians undeniably rejected more mandatory minimums when given a choice.

The importance of this defeat cannot be emphasized enough. First of all, it rules out any legal challenge from Mannix to the success of Measure 57. This also strengthens our movement for a smarter approach to public safety. We have long thought that the public was ahead of legislators in their support for prevention-based approaches to public safety rather than more simple-minded tough on crime “solutions.” This election should help solidify legislative support for getting a handle on our growing prison system, passing safe and sensible sentencing reform, restoring judicial discretion, and investing in treatment and prevention focused programs that reduce crime and save tax dollars in the process.

To be real, legislative change will still come slowly around these issues. But we have pretty clear evidence that Oregonians want something different than the status quo.

Measure 61’s defeat may raise some questions about the strategy of supporting Measure 57 in order to defeat the junk Mannix was peddling. But let’s be clear, supporting Measure 57 was the right strategy and was crucial in ensuring the defeat of 61.

Decisions need to be made early on in order to defeat a statewide ballot measure that polled really well for the past year - until about two weeks ago. Perhaps if we left the decision of what to do until the second week in October we might have chosen a different strategy, but by then we would have already lost.

Without a choice and an option for a more balanced approach to addressing drug and property crime, some voters who voted NO on 61 would have voted for it.

Lastly, there are always conditions that are impossible to predict. The economic impact of 61 may have taken on more significance to a greater number of people because of the intense and dire economic news this fall. Not only was that news unpredictable this past summer, spring and last February, it was too close to the election to speculatively reverse the focus of the campaign.

We should take heart that Oregonians rejected Mannix’s Mandatory Minimum Madness, buts lets acknowledge a range of factors led to that outcome including the choice of Measure 57.

We should be proud of our collective work and success:

Measure 61 Bites the Dust!

Fri, 11/07/2008 - 1:59pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Martin Sheen has also been rearing his ignorant head in Washington State.

He's been running an 'Ignomercial' against a 'Death with Dignity' initiative... which thankfully passed w/ a strong majority... despite his fear mongering!

So please join me in telling Martin Sheen... to fuck-off & stick to what he's good at... acting!

Fri, 11/07/2008 - 4:02pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

We were out registering the poor to vote in California and urge everyone to continue to do this. The Prop 5 campaign widely exposed the prison crisis and everyone struggling to end murder by medical neglect and injustice in the courts benefitted by it. We gave speeches, posted beneath articles at the news sites, made calls and went door to door. Unfortunately, we need more workers out here, we need more funds too so that we can keep the campaign alive and building. Here is a flyer inviting everyone who is outraged over the murder of prisoners by medical neglect to come out and rally with us in San Francisco at 9 am Fri Nov 21 to support the three judge panel. They could order release of 40,000 non violent prisoners and we need to turn out to expose this humanitarian crisis as much as possible. Go here, hit print, hand out in prison line ups, mail to prisoners, We now have a 13 oz maximum including the envelope on prisoner mail in CA, which figures out to 68 sheets and one mylar envelope. The Amtrak arrives three blocks away, meet us by the flag pole.

Here's the flyer

Here's a glimpse of the lives being devastated due to medical neglect and the overcrowding - we need as many attendees as possible, we are all of you, many UNION folks active with Drug Policy Alliance

This was in May - sure could use rides/bus rental from San Diego area - we're dealing with extreme devastation

Fri, 11/07/2008 - 10:38pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

even with limited resources, we've filed 30 lawsuits amongst our families, and have been writing to editors and attending hearings for ten years, we could use a bit of back up in this final leg of the journey They are holding on to all the terminally ill and medically incapacitated prisoners who could be in skilled nursing facilities. Many have families who would take them, it's a humanitarian crisis that defies all explanation.

Fri, 11/07/2008 - 10:42pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree, everyone I spoke with who voted for 57 and against 61 was voting to make sure that Mannix did not suceed with his ignorant method of dealing with crime. One good thing was that prior to getting measure 61 on the ballot he had removed a provision that would have killed the current medical marijuana law and replaced it with doctor prescribed Marinol. The estimate was that this would have cost the state millions in paying for the Marinol for current medical marijuana patients, most of whom would have received no benefit from the Marinol.

Sat, 11/08/2008 - 1:33pm Permalink

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