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PD Editorial: No on Prop 20: Don’t bring back harsh sentences

California voters acted with compassion and protected their pocketbooks when they relaxed penalties for drug possession and low-level property crimes.

For years, the state warehoused people in prison for longer and longer sentences without making a dent in the crime rate.

When the prisons were filled to twice their capacity and the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, the state started commandeering space in county jails.

Along the way, prisons became one of the biggest line items in the state budget, draining money from schools, highways and other public services.

Against that backdrop, voters approved some modest reductions in prison sentences in 2014, with a 60% majority in favor. Two years later, a 64% majority approved a measure that allowed more inmates to qualify for parole by using their time prison to learn a trade or complete their education so they would be better prepared for life on the outside.

California was on the front end of a national trend.

Other states have followed suit, and President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation reducing sentences for numerous federal offenses — one of the few genuine legislative achievements of his administration.

What’s happened to the state’s crime rate? It has declined to levels last seen in the 1960s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

This isn’t the time to reverse course.

However, that’s what would happen under Proposition 20, an initiative on the Nov. 3 ballot sponsored by groups that have a lot to gain from a harsh “lock ’em up” approach, including a union representing prison guards.

Proposition 20 would restrict access to parole and make inmates who are denied parole wait two years instead of one for a second chance at supervised release. Even with the incentives approved by voters in 2016, a relatively small proportion of inmates is released on parole: just 19% of the 4,600 who were given consideration in 2019.

Proposition 20 also would create new felonies for repeat misdemeanor thefts and organized shoplifting while restoring felony status, and thereby raising the maximum sentence from six months to three years, for some thefts of as little as $250. (The present threshold is $950, and it was $450 before Proposition 47.)

Taxpayers spend more than $50,000 a year on each of the approximately 100,000 inmates in California’s prison system.

That’s about five times more than the state’s per-student investment in K-12 education.

The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst projects annual costs in the tens of millions of dollars for local governments under Proposition 20, because many of the affected inmates would serve their time in county jails.

The state faces about a 1% increase in general fund spending, according to the legislative analyst, and may get stuck with legal costs defending the measure in court, as some of the parole changes are may violate the state constitution.

California’s move away from long sentences hasn’t been flawless. For example, we supported legislation that would have increased the penalty for auto break-ins. Lawmakers should revisit this issue. They also ought to consider a provision of Proposition 20 that would require more people convicted of misdemeanors to submit DNA samples for the state database.

But it would be unwise to abandon shorter sentences or incentives for inmates to prepare themselves to be productive citizens, especially with the coronavirus pandemic chewing up the rainy day fund and creating a deep budget deficit. The Press Democrat recommends a no vote on Proposition 20.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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