Invest in Community, Not in Prisons, the Case for CA Prop 47

Prop 47

This November Californians will decide whether or not to improve our “justice system.” Our state prisons currently house some 136,000 individuals. For years we ranked first in largest state prison population in America. Recently Texas surpassed us but we’re still a strong second wearing the shiny silver medal of dishonor, the bronze goes to Florida with over 100,000 prison inmates. Since 1980 our prison budget has increased nearly 450% while our higher education budget consistently suffers. We’ve prioritized prisons over education. Our sky rocketing prison budget is not about California having more “criminals,” it’s about implementing policies that criminalize more Californians. Private corporations and lobbyists have succeeded in driving up our prison spending to nearly $12 billion. The numbers are alarming, especially when we focus on the disparate impact on black and Latino men who represent some 70% of our prison population.

Our penal codes need to be amended and unfortunately the state legislature has not had the courage to make necessary changes out of fear of appearing “soft on crime.” They also want to maintain support of the state’s multi-billion dollar prison industry. California voters have a rare opportunity to make the necessary change now by voting for Proposition 47 on the November ballot. This prop will certainly not fix all of the injustices in our criminal system but it does provide for some excellent prison reform for non-violent offenders. The language of the proposition is narrowly tailored to include 6 penal code sections pertaining to drug possession and minor theft or fraud offenses involving less than $950. The proposed language reduces these offenses from felonies (which carry possible prison sentences) to misdemeanors which carry a maximum sentence of one year in county jail. Anyone currently serving prison time for these minor theft or drug possession offenses may be re-sentenced as misdemeanor offenders and will serve a maximum of one year in county jail along with any additional probation terms that a judge deems appropriate. The language of prop 47 excludes persons with violent criminal records including rape, molestation or any other strike priors. A drug user or shoplifter with a violent prior strike conviction is excluded and will still serve prison time so there is no risk of releasing violent offenders.

Having served as a public defender for six years I’ve seen many good people with addiction and mental health issues sentenced to lengthy prison terms because of their history of substance abuse and non-violent crime. Upon release these felons are excluded from most employment opportunities and are stigmatized for what are often relatively minor offenses. Our prisons are full of non-violent offenders who need mental health counseling and drug treatment but instead of rehabilitation we spend billions on housing, feeding, clothing and incarcerating them for years while never addressing the root of the problem. Prop 47 does address some of these root causes. The estimated $150- $250 million per year in state savings will be re-allocated from prison spending to mental health and substance abuse treatment (65%), k-12 education (25%) and victim trauma recovery services (10%). This reallocation will address some of the root causes that result in high recidivism rates when left unaddressed.

As long as corporate money and fear drive political policy our legislature will never propose a bill like this. This is our opportunity as voters to show the rest of the nation that Californians do not see incarceration as a solution for addiction, mental health issues and non-violent theft offenses. This prop is supported by the San Francisco and Santa Clara District Attorneys, former San Diego Police Chief, California Teachers Association and numerous organizations that value individual life and public safety while rejecting the fear tactics presented by opponents. This prop is entitled “California Safe Neighborhoods & Schools” because it invests in our neighbors and schools, NOT in private prison corporations. Incarceration is only a temprorary fix that does not make us safer, investing in our communities does.

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Police Violence is Still Violence

Last week the city of Pasadena agreed to pay  $1,037,500 to the parents of Kendrec McDade to settle civil cases involving two police officers that shot and killed the 19 year old on March 24, 2012. The young man was shot eight times after a brief pursuit. Police believed he was armed after receiving a call identifying an “armed suspect.” The caller later admitted that there was no weapon and that he lied so police would respond faster. An investigation found the police conduct to be “lawful and within departmental policy.” The loss is a scar that will forever leave a mark on this city. The million dollar settlement is also a painful reminder of the monetary cost of gun violence.

This story serves as one more lesson in a long list of recent tragedies resulting from gun violence.  Just because the shooters in this case were uniformed officers, this loss is no less tragic than losses at Santa Barbara, Sandy Hook or anywhere else.  America consistently has the highest rates of gun related fatalities on the planet, yet we refuse to address the issue of gun control in a more effective manner. Instead we continue to debate gun advocates who repeat the mantra “guns don’t kill, people kill.”  We have a responsibility to advance the conversation to include viable alternatives to our current reality of widespread access to fatal weapons. England is one such example where neither police offices nor private citizens carry guns. Last year while 12,000 people in America died from gun violence, England had less than 200 gun fatalities.  There may be several reasons for this disparity, and one of them is certainly the fact that handguns are not readily available to the public or the police.

At some point the lives of those thousands of victims should be valued more than our absurdly liberal gun laws. I hope that our conversations and gun policy decisions one day reflect a higher value on human life. In a civilized society the preservation of life should outweigh the right to bear arms, because lives are always more valuable than guns. Image

Tips for Dealing with Law Enforcement

Seattle police officers wearing riot gear guard a Starbucks coffee shop during May Day demonstrations in Seattle

1. The Right to be Free from Search

The Fourth Amendment guarantees our right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. This right applies to all persons whether walking, driving, riding a bike, sitting at home or even standing around in a public space. The 4th amendment was written to protect individuals from police and law enforcement agents. That means police can not search you, or arrest you without a warrant, or without evidence that you are involved in a crime. One way police often get around the warrant requirement is by asking if you will agree to a search of your vehicle, bag, home or other property. Know that you always have the right to refuse a search, and you should exercise that right with confidence, knowing that state and federal law support you in asserting that right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. If an officer asks if he/she can search you, your car or your property, simply say “No, I do not consent to searches.” Repeat as needed because they can be very persistent.

2. The Right to be Free from Seizure

The Fourth Amendment also protects individuals from police who may try to arrest or detain you without legal justification. Police can be intimidating, but remember that the law is on your side and is there to protect you. When officers stop you on the street and want to question you, you can quickly terminate that police encounter by asking the question: “Officer are you detaining me, or am I free to go?” At that point, if the officer says you are not being detained, then just walk away, because that is your right, and the officer knows that. When police question you, that usually means they don’t already have enough evidence to detain you, and most likely they’re fishing for anything they can use against you or someone you know. Be smart, don’t stand there and provide info that can later be used against you or someone else in court. Quit while you’re ahead, and keep your mouth shut.

3. Your Right to Remain Silent, Shut Your Mouth and Stay Out of Trouble

Everyone who’s watched a cop show has heard the phrase: “you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Despite hearing that phrase repeatedly, many people are all too eager to speak to police whenever they are asked to do so. If you are being questioned about possible criminal conduct, you’re best response is always: “I choose to remain silent, I’d like to speak with a lawyer.” You may have to repeat that sentence several times, because the police will most likely continue to ask you questions and try to get you to change your mind. Be firm, and remember that the law is on your side, and remind them that you will remain silent, and would like to speak to a lawyer. Cops are allowed to lie to you, so don’t be tricked by false threats or promises, don’t give up your right to remain silent, be firm, and shut your mouth. If cops are questioning you, that often means they don’t have enough evidence against you, shut your mouth and don’t give it to them.