Going backwards on sentencing reform will not make us safer.

 This November’s election presents a stark choice for California voters: will we vote for fear and a return to mass incarceration, or will we continue with reforms that have reduced our prison population and redirected resources to support communities.

California’s Proposition 20 on the ballot November 3rd seeks to roll back the sentencing reforms of the last decade and divest from community investments in violence prevention and the reentry of people returning home from prison. A vote for Prop 20 will return us to the failed strategy of mass incarceration which wasted the lives and resources of our State for decades. 

The Proposition 20 campaign is financed by law enforcement (police and sheriff’s unions and the correctional officers unions) and retail corporations, but was allegedly created in the name of victims. Their major donor is the CCPOA – the California prison guard union that has already spent $2 million trying to pass this law.

One of the groups pushing this narrative of return to the good old days of mass incarceration is “The Voice of California Crime Victims”. 

I am not sure who they speak for, but I know they don’t speak for me. In the twenty-eight years since my sister was murdered, I have worked for nonviolence and healing. My own healing journey has taught me that our criminal justice system will not create safety because it invests in punishment rather than healing. 

The determinants of crime and violence are complex and intersecting. What is undisputed is that there has been a drastic decarceration in California since 2010 (the prison population decreased by over 60,000 in ten years) and our crime rates are at historic lows.

And yet the narrative being pushed by supporters of the Proposition is that the pendulum has swung too far towards reform. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan stated, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” 

If Proposition 20 passes, people will once again face longer prison sentences even though there is no evidence that longer sentences create better outcomes. 

Our current system is set up to cycle people in and out of prison without addressing the root causes of crime. It continues to direct resources towards enforcing punitive parole conditions rather than supporting successful re-entry. If people are released from prison and face obstacles to housing and employment because of their conviction, that is an invitation to recidivism. Especially at this moment, when so many in our communities have lost their jobs and are housing insecure because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot afford to invest our scarce and precious resources in prisons rather than people.

We tried incarcerating our way to public safety. It didn’t work and diverted precious resources from our communities. We have only just begun to reimagine how to create safety through prevention rather than punishment. 

Trauma recovery centers, schools, public health resources, small businesses, and youth development programs are the pathway towards wellness, economic justice, safety and well-being. If we invested our resources in prevention instead of incarceration, we could not only save money we would save lives. As a person who has lost a loved one to violence, this is what public safety looks like to me.


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