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Musings on the California Initiative System and the Case for Prop. 47

My feelings about the proposition system in California are conflicted. In theory, propositions are a great idea. Put the power of governance directly in the people's hands.

On the other hand, there are good reasons why we elect people to govern us who hopefully have more time to devote to a thorough understanding of issues. Many (most? all?) of us simply don't have the time to research and understand an issue to the degree necessary to be making big important policy decisions.

But then I see the other side of that argument as well. While that may be what we should be able to expect of our elected government officials, we clearly are not getting it. For a multitude of reasons, our legislature in California fails to do much of anything and the problems are compounded when you're talking about an issue that is at all politically dangerous. So I tell myself again that propositions are a good and useful idea.

But then election comes and I see the cynical way that even propositions that seek to do good things market themselves falsely believing that they must mislead voters to gain the support they need. This lack of trust in voters may in and of itself be a signal that we shouldn't be putting these issues in the hands of voters. I also see that in many propositions have nothing to do with putting power back in the people's hands and are often just a cheaper way of doing business for a special interest group. Why spend time buying off politicians when you can just get your issue straight on the ballot and mislead voters?

I do not think I am alone in my disillusionment with and distrust of the proposition system. These feelings have led me to a default policy of voting against propositions unless I have really taken the time to understand the issue at hand in a meaningful way. I suspect many other voters may do the same.

In fact, just for the fun of it I just went and did some quick research and confirmed my suspicion. In the 1980s, Californians approved 25 of 52 (48%) propositions. In the 1990s, that number fell to 24 of 63 (38%). The trend continued in the 2000s, as voters approved 20 of 61 (33%) propositions. The small sample size from this decade shows the approval rate at 5 of 14 (36%). There is a ton of interesting information about the initiative process here.

So voters have grown skeptical, for good reason, of the propositions put to them, myself included. All that aside, I am writing today to urge you with everything I have to vote yes on Proposition 47.

Proposition 47, also known as the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, represents everything that the initiative system is there for. It seeks to do something that our politicians have proven time and time again they are too cowardly to do: get smart on crime rather than tough. It aims to reduce the penalties, generally from felony to misdemeanor sentencing for a drug possession and some low-level theft related offenses. Strikingly, its supporters are completely honest about this objective. While they do point out, again in an honest way, the better uses to which the potential savings created by the changes would be put to use (schools, rehabilitations services, victim compensation funds), they do not hide their true objective in a Trojan horse or mischaracterize the reality of what the proposition would mean for Californians. It would mean admitting that our criminal justice system, as it currently exists, is broken. We incarcerate far too many people for addiction, a problem better dealt with as a healthcare issue than a criminal one, and minor theft offenses that are more a result of poverty than some threat to society.

Guess who is not honest about Prop. 47? Its opponents. The utterly disingenuous, to the point of dishonesty, manner in which opponents have characterized what Prop. 47 would do is despicable.

One particularly cynical example of this is the first argument one sees when visiting the opposition website, which boldly announces: "DATE RAPE IS NOT A VICTIMLESS CRIME," the clear implication being that Prop. 47 would reduce criminal penalties for rape. This is, obviously, nonsense. In reducing criminal penalties for simple possession of drugs, Prop. 47 makes possession of Rohypnol, ketamine and GHB misdemeanors. Leaving aside the fact that these are drugs which people do use recreationally and that they are not solely used as "date rape drugs," the fact of the matter is they are so inconsequential in the context of the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend each year prosecuting and imprisoning users of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, that they should not even be part of the conversation. Nothing about rape laws would change in the slightest and, if it is any further consolation, in the almost 9 years I have been practicing law in the criminal courts of southern California, I have never seen a prosecution for any of these substances.

Proposition 47 recognizes that one of the major causes of the fiscal crisis this state finds itself in is its neverending quest starting in the late 1970s to get tougher and tougher on crime without ever stopping to think whether anything we are doing is worth the pricetag. It hasn't been, especially when you look at the constant cuts to education (leading to many of our states poorest citizens becoming locked in a cycle of poverty, which has proven to be directly related to crime rates and substance abuse rates) that our obsession with incarceration has caused.

Prisons are for people we are scared of, not people we are mad at. Let's put these resources to use in ways that might actually address the problems we hope to solve. Let's prove that Californians are smart enough not to be manipulated by dishonest propaganda and scare tactics. Let's prove that the initiative system can still works. Vote yes on 47.

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