Rarely are California’s voters presented with such a poignant example of the corrupt nature of the state’s political system than that of Proposition 6, an initiative that will appear on the November 2008 ballot. Cynically dubbed the “Safe Neighborhoods Act” by its sponsors Republican Senator George Runner, indicted billionaire Henry Nicholas, and a small circle of Sacramento lobbyists, the initiative is a special-interest raid on the state treasury.
As California grapples with a massive multi-billion-dollar long-term budget deficit, Proposition 6 mandates nearly one billion dollars ($952 million) of new funding to the state’s criminal justice system, primarily for increasing criminal penalties and expanding the prison population. The initiative is supported by an assortment of law enforcement lobbies and their allies that include Corrections Corporation of America, Golden State Bail Agents Association, the Narcotics Officers Association, and other groups who comprise the initiatives primary beneficiaries. Other major donors include the California Association of Health Underwriters, an insurance company lobby that is closely allied with Senator Runner and his opposition to health care reform.
Since there is no existing funding stream available to pay for its enhanced penalties and prison expansion, Proposition 6 will necessitate reductions in critical state services. California’s recently enacted budget has already forced over 9 billion dollars in funding cuts to existing services primarily in K-12 education, public universities, environmental protection, roads and levees, and services for the elderly, disabled, and children. In addition, with the state’s prison system on the verge of collapse and the Federal courts threatening to seize another 8 billion dollars from the California treasury to repair it, Proposition 6 could not come at an economically worst time.
To justify the measure, Proposition 6 proponents argue that massive imprisonment reduces crime. This tired platitude, though frequently recited, is not valid. Over the past decade crime rates have fallen throughout California and around the nation regardless of a jurisdiction’s imprisonment policy. For example, from 1996 to 2006, 18 of California’s most populous counties (those with 100,000 or more people) increased their imprisonment rates while the other 17 most populous counties reduced their imprisonment rates. Despite substantial differences in prison sentences, the high imprisonment counties did not achieve reduced crime rates compared to low imprisonment counties.
In fact, the counties with lower imprisonment rates often experienced considerably larger reductions in violent crime and murder rates than did the counties that locked up more people. The same pattern is true across the country when states with low imprisonment rates are compared to high imprisonment states. With crime rates currently at their lowest level in 40 years, California cannot afford the luxury of spending an additional billion dollars to add more inmates to its overcrowded prisons when the evidence shows it produces no societal benefit.
Proposition 6 represents the manipulation of the initiative process by Sacramento-based lobbyists and their clients. The initiative was drafted and promoted by two lobbying firms who represent 10 of the state’s largest law enforcement associations and their affiliated interest groups. In an alliance with Republican State Senator George Runner, who agreed to sponsor the initiative, Proposition 6 backers
were able to garner the financial backing of Orange County billionaire Henry Nicholas. Nicholas is a prominent long time funder of conservative causes, and his support allowed initiative sponsors to fund the signature gathering campaign that put Proposition 6 on the ballot.
Ironically, at the time he was donating over a million dollars to the Proposition 6 campaign and its draconian sentencing policies, Mr. Nicholas was under Federal investigation for securities fraud, drug distribution, and prostitution. According to court reports, Nicholas maintained a drug warehouse and concealed his illegal activities through bribes and death threats. Now under indictment, he faces a possible 35 year prison sentence. According to the Chicago Tribune, Nicholas cites his support for initiatives such as Proposition 6 as evidence of his innocence.
Debates over criminal justice policy are a legitimate and an important part of political discourse. From healthy debates arise good public policy. It is when well funded special interests are able to manipulate the initiative process and avoid full scrutiny of their motives that the citizens of California pay the price. Proposition 6 represents the worst aspects of special interest politics and should be rejected by all Californians regardless of political persuasion or party affiliation.
Daniel Macallair is the Executive Director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and teaches in the Department of Criminal Justice Studies at San Francisco State University. G. Thomas Gitchoff is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at San Diego State University and co-founder of the Western Society of Criminology.