Criminal Justice Reformers Clock Big Wins in California

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A man jogs past a row of telephone booths in front of the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail on May 11, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever since California started embracing changes to its criminal sentencing system a decade ago, police and prosecutors have pushed back, arguing that the reforms went too far and undermined public safety, and that voters who approved them didn't really know what they were doing.

This year, opponents of reform went back to the electorate with Proposition 20, which would have made it easier to put some people in jail for theft, while making it harder for thousands of state prisoners to qualify for parole consideration.

"And it wasn't even close," said Kate Chatfield, policy director at the pro-reform Justice Collaborative.

She’s right — Proposition 20 has been trailing by double digits since Tuesday as the ballots continue to be tallied.

Chatfield says supporters of the measure — largely law enforcement groups — used the traditional law and order playbook, which worked in decades past.

"They used all their usual cards in the deck. You know, 'crime is increasing.' The fear-based mailers, the phony arguments," she said.

"The voters saw through them. I mean, the voters just were not persuaded," Chatfield added. "And that to me was very, very hopeful that we may have turned this corner."

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Proposition 20 wasn’t the only big win. Statewide, voters also gave people on parole the right to vote. And at the local level, a half dozen Bay Area cities passed police accountability measures.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the progressive district attorney candidate, George Gascón, appears to have defeated his rival, current District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who was backed by law enforcement.

Jay Jordan, executive director of the pro-reform group Californians for Safety and Justice, says the message from voters is clear: They support rehabilitation and other alternatives to incarceration, not more jails and prisons.

He noted that Proposition 20 lost in 50 of the state’s 58 counties, including reliably red ones.

"No longer can you just tell California voters anything," said Jordan, whose organization wrote one of the reform measures that Proposition 20 sought to roll back.

In this era, Jordan said, campaigns are "going to have to make the case. And, you know, the case for more prisons and more prison spending is just not one that California voters are willing to accept."

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But Jordan’s group did suffer one big loss: Proposition 25, which would have ended money bail in California, was defeated after a well-funded campaign by the bail industry and law enforcement. Those groups got a boost from an unexpected source — progressive civil rights groups, who argued that the measure’s proposed replacement for bail was unfair and could lead to more people being locked up.

Mike Gatto, a consultant for the No on 25 campaign, says voters understood it was deeply flawed.

"I think that the historic coalition that came together to oppose it sent a clear message to the Legislature that the people of the state want them to do better," said Gatto, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

But Gatto rejects the notion that the electorate sent a broader message of increased support for criminal reform, arguing that Proposition 20 — the tough-on-crime measure, which he supported — was defeated simply because its backers were outspent.

Generally, Gatto adds, he doesn't see a surge of anti-law enforcement sentiment among California voters.

Chatfield disagrees. A former defense attorney who has worked on these issues for two decades, she says while the bail measure was complicated because of opposition from both the left and right, the rest of the statewide and local criminal justice outcomes in this election should send a message to state leaders that the public is ready to go even farther on reform.

"The voters are so much further along on this issue than the California Legislature or any Legislature in the country," she said.

Chatfield, Jordan and others hope the state Legislature, which failed to pass several police reform measures this past summer, will hear that message and be willing to embrace reforms to both policing and criminal sentencing in 2021.