By Colby Tibbet, originally printed in The Collegian.
Central Valley community members met Tuesday at the The kNow Youth Media building in southwest Fresno to discuss Proposition 47, or the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, that California voters will vote on next week.
The meeting featured advocacy groups discussing their perspectives on Proposition 47 and its impact on local communities, from the fiscal implications to its focus on crime victims and mental health.
“Who is this going to impact? It’s going to impact poor communities, communities of color, and it’s going to impact young people,” said Jacob Simas, YouthWire director at New America Media, the mediator of the event.
Proposition 47 aims to change particular felony charges, such as drug offenses, petty theft and property offenses, to misdemeanors. However, this reduced sentencing and change in penalties would not apply to those with gun, violent crime or child molestation convictions.
Minister Bryson White, community organizer of Faith in Community, said that this is one of the most important pieces of California policy, as it would change drug and crime policy that has been in effect since the War on Drugs started in the early 1970s.
“It’s a historic piece of legislation,” White said. “It’s rectifying the so-called War on Drugs… the War on Drugs has been a war on people of color.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 48 percent of federal inmates were incarcerated due to drug crimes in 2011, with only 8 percent being serious violent crimes.
White says that the focus should be on education and ending U.S. policies in which the prison system serves as the main conduit for rehabilitation.
“We’ve funneled people into prisons instead of schools, and Prop 47 is a response to that,” White said. “Prop 47 doesn’t seek to remove accountability. It’s looking to break the repeatable cycle of the prison system.”
However, opponents of Proposition 47 say that this could harm students by reducing sentences of charges linked to crimes like the use of “date-rape” drugs.
Law enforcement and police agencies strongly oppose the bill. The California Police Chiefs Association has called the proposition a “dangerous, radical package of ill-conceived policies,” according to their website.
A Fresno Bee editorial recently recommended that voters should vote no on Proposition 47, saying that, “The change is unnecessary.”
The editorial stated that sentencing should not be left in the hands of voters.
“With few exceptions, the blunt instrument that is the initiative process should not be used to alter the criminal justice system,” the editorial board said.
Tsia Xiong, executive director of the Merced Organization Project, said that the system itself is unbalanced in California, because it has allowed high incarceration rates of ethnic minorities, particularly Southeast Asians.
“There have been 22 prisons built since 1983, but there has been only one UC built,” Xiong said.
Xiong said that Hmong youth can benefit from the proposition, since they are among the largest incarcerated group in the Central Valley. It allows those who have made mistakes at a young age to gain a second chance, he said.
“America offers a lot of opportunity, but also offers a lot of hindrance of our youth,” Xiong said.
The most recent pollings by the Public Policy Institute of California show that 59 percent of voters are in support of Proposition 47, with 29 percent opposing and 12 percent still undecided on the law.
White says that those who are still undecided or oppose Proposition 47 should look at it from a fiscal point of view.
“If we want to invest in the future of California, we have to begin shifting funds from incarceration to investing in people and children’s futures,” White said.
The California State Budget for 2014-2015 has allocated $11.9 million toward corrections and rehabilitation. In contrast, the state has allocated $12.9 million for higher education.
“We could do lot of things with that money,” Xiong said. “I’m a huge advocate for education. I think the only way to get out of poverty is to get a quality education.”