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California’s Criminal Justice Propositions: 2020 in Review

State propositions are the middle ground between city and federal policy change. Those results help shape local organizing.

Source: Flickr

The war to end mass incarceration requires a million tactics employed on just as many fronts. In a system designed to protect the few at the expense of the many, the obstacles can seem daunting and never-ending. However, as long as this system bears its full weight on us, we have a duty to push against it with all our might in whatever ways we’re capable of in order to inspire real change.

When it comes to policy, and elections as a tactic to change that policy, we have three major fronts: National, State, and City/County.

Too much energy is spent covering the depressing theatrics of the national stage when in reality many of the policies that affect our day-to-day lives are determined at the state and local levels. While Knock.LA mostly covers stories local to Los Angeles County, it’s important to keep tabs on movement at the state level. State Propositions are a great bellwether not just for local activists but for the nation as well. They help us gauge whether our local work is resonating beyond our bubbles so that we can scale up and replicate our progress on a federal level.

As the sun sets on a costly and contentious election year, the vibe is more a sense of exhausted relief rather than exalted celebration. Even though we “won” many tickets up to and down the ballot, 2 out of 3 Criminal Justice Proposition “wins” were really just defensive moves. However, just because we didn’t do anything flashy like decriminalizing all drugs, the Golden State still has plenty to celebrate.

California’s one true progressive darling this year was Prop 17, which will restore voting rights to former prisoners. It is truly stellar that we voted decisively to invite tens of thousands of people to cast ballots with us next cycle. Even still, Prop 17’s success serves as a sobering reminder of the depths from which we have to crawl our way towards decency and equity. The fact that California is now further ahead than 32 states’ voter laws speaks volumes about the work required at the national level. Hopefully, this victory will inspire other states to hop onboard.

This batch’s biggest shrug was Prop 20, a fear-mongering panic move that intended to undo years of activist work codified by Prop 47 in 2014. Prop 47 reduced sentencing guidelines in an effort to shrink the prison population. Prop 20 then tried to escalate sentencing for even the most basic offenses. Californians widely agreed this was idiotic and predictably and decisively shut it down. The clear message is that from national to local levels, people finally see that it’s time to end mass incarceration and rethink our approach to crime. Los Angeles’ new District Attorney Gascón’s monumental recent announcement reflected the changing tide by blowing this discussion, as well as that of Prop 25, out of the water.

California’s biggest voter-motivated mystery was Prop 25. Its text was incredibly misleading, and it certainly befuddled well-meaning liberals eager to champion the longstanding progressive goal of ending cash bail. What wasn’t so obvious was that the alternative meant an obscenely costly and Minority Report-level risk assessment algorithm, rife with ties to corporate interests.

Youth Justice LA and other activist groups did try to spread the alarm that Prop 25 wasn’t what it was cracked up to be, but they started their campaign quite late in the game. Judging from the electoral map, the Bay Area either didn’t get the message in time or they rejected it. This indicates a greater need for more unified messaging between Los Angeles and San Francisco organizations. In regards to the rest of the “No” votes, it’s hard to say how many people wanted to keep cash bail as-is versus who hated cash bail but understood Prop 25’s fatal flaws. The good news is, Prop 25’s rejection opened the door for two conversations — what real pretrial reform would look like, and how to actually enact said reforms. The great news is that Gascón’s surprise announcement this week changed the conversation completely. In arguably the best plot twist of 2020, Los Angeles County will join San Francisco’s ban on cash bail, rendering Prop 25 obsolete locally.

Source: Twitter

Gascón’s surprise statement gave the progressive movement an enormous push and is an excellent example of local reverberating outward. Time (and heavy activist pressure) will tell how serious he is about these promises, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of this moment. It also begs the question of the chicken or the egg argument. Gascón surprised us all with his meticulous and thorough statement, but it did come after the election. It’s also important to keep in mind that he had the chance to enact all these changes when he was San Francisco’s DA. In fact, he was urged to do so by local activists at the time. It is plausible that he saw clear referendums on where we as a county, and state, have shifted on these matters and was influenced by this evolution of wider public opinion.

The needle may be heavy and requires maximum effort for even the slightest budge, but we got a great morale boost this week. What is clear moving forward is that Angelenos’s voices will be a driving force in the coming battles. Between Gascón’s policy announcements and Measure J’s resounding success, we’re in for a thrilling new chapter in reimagining public safety in our hometown. The rest of the state will be watching. The trick will be quantifying this momentum and scaling it up to more extensive, real progress on a larger scale.