California’s Prop 47: Important, But Imperfect


California’s voters will soon vote on Proposition 47 (aka The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014), which would reform sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenders and divert millions of dollars from prisons to education, mental health and victim services.

I’m happy to see 62% of likely voters plan to support Prop 47 because it is badly-needed reform. California incarcerates more people than almost any other state in the nation, and Governor Brown’s court-ordered ‘prison realignment’ plan has only succeeded in shuffling (not reducing) the prison population and making inmates less-safe.

Meanwhile, nearly 30% of the state’s incarcerated are mentally ill as services disappear with draconian budget cuts. A 2011 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found the state “virtually divested itself of accountability for its residents living with serious mental illness, shifting responsibility to counties and, incredibly, slashing its state mental health staff…”:

In California, which has cut over $750 million dollars from its mental health budget in recent years, the governor suspended the mandate on counties to provide mental health services for special education students, meaning that the burden of providing and paying for their care is shifted to school systems, also struggling with limited resources.

Prop 47 would divert an estimated $750 million to $1.25 billion in savings from corrections to essential programs and services over the next 5 years.

Supporting this reform bill should be a no-brainer, although it’s unfortunate that the freedom of others will be put to a vote on a ballot. But since drug war-era politicians are loathe to lead the way for fear of Willie Horton-style reprisals, it looks like it will be up to the voters to return some sanity to the criminal justice system.

Passing Prop 47, it’s federal cousin, the Smarter Sentencing Act, and other decarceration bills, are important first steps towards breaking our dependency on prisons. The fact that these reforms exist and enjoy such a wide range of support shows that we’re moving in the right direction. But there are still lingering ‘tough on crime’ sentiments — in these bills and in the CJ reform movement in general — that remain as obstacles to achieving fair justice.

Hurt People Hurt People

Let me say unequivocally that the crimes and acts committed by the ‘violent offender’ class are reprehensible. Murder, sexual assault and child molestation are among the worst of crimes imaginable, and the victims (including their families and communities) deserve justice.

That being said, incarceration has not brought justice to our communities. Imprisonment has not broken the deplorable cycles of violence that plague society; if anything, this strategy only appears to perpetuate harm by depriving individuals of the critical social bonds and services they need to function and survive.

Multiple studies have found that violence and sexual assault are often perpetrated by people who were themselves victims of the very same abuses. In many cases, those who are hurting are hurt themselves, and haven’t received the care or support they need to overcome their illnesses or trauma. Our experiment with locking them up instead of confronting their underlying trauma or mental health issues has failed countless people over generations.

So I understand, but remain troubled by, the prominent and regular reassurances in Prop 47 campaign materials that violent offenders and sexual predators will remain behind bars. I can’t help but feel somewhat uncomfortable with a policy that seeks legitimacy through the marginalization of others, no matter who those ‘others’ are.

“Officials Investigating After 10-Year-Old’s Killer Gets Prison Tattoo On Forehead: ‘Katie’s Revenge.'” WAVE3 News, 2006.

Our impulse to villainize and dehumanize those who commit some of society’s worst crimes makes it more difficult for us to address the root causes of those crimes. For example, there is no attempt to provide support or intervene in the behaviors of child molesters. They occupy a place in our society so taboo that we’ve made their lowest moments into fodder for a TV show.

Jail is, almost without exception, all we have to offer child predators and sex offenders. The growing number of them often serve their sentences in protective isolation or enduring extreme violence at the hands of the general population and merciless guards.

This bloodlust may feel cathartic, but it is an unproductive disservice to all victims– past, present and future. Without attempts to better understand sexual predators and intervene in their behavior, we stand no chance at stopping their crimes from taking place. We go to such great lengths to keep the public updated with an expansive registry of sex offenders, but we do comparatively little to keep people off that list.

Prisons Don’t Value Life

While vast majorities of Americans support sentencing and drug policy reform, most still believe we should imprison some group of people for the public safety, creating a toxic combination of fear and indifference that cripples our justice system.

We often deride climate change deniers because their arguments are not based in science. Do we not justify prisons on similar anti-scientific grounds? Is there any meaningful evidence that punishment and imprisonment are the best ways to deal with any single group or category of offenders? We all need to begin thinking about our default acceptance of prisons and whether we really can’t come up with a more modern solution.

Decarceration is a huge and urgent challenge. Tinkering with the system by implementing small reforms to ‘build a better mousetrap’ will never be enough. We need to have a radical reimagining of our criminal justice system that is more in line with today’s morals and ethics, and most importantly, science. Part of this process will involve a reckoning with those we’ve marginalized in our society, and an honest introspection about whether those judgements are fair or morally acceptable any longer. Just as it has in the past, it will spark bitter divisions and struggle that would have been unimaginable before.

It will, without a doubt, take a while to get there, but it will happen. I’m confident of it. There was once a time when people would have called you insane for suggesting slaves not be enslaved. Until very recently, homosexuals wouldn’t dare to declare their orientation publicly, and drug users and addicts of any degree were believed to be inherently bad and undesirable people. At some point, though, we began to recognize their humanity, and once that started to happen it was impossible to turn back.

It reminds me of something I heard Michele Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, say during an online talk I attended this week:

I think until we as a society begin to see those who have been demonized as criminals and felons and all the other labels we throw at them, until we see them as human beings who have hopes and dreams and have successes and failures who have made mistakes in their lives large and small, but so many of them want to contribute, want to do right by their children and to work and contribute to our society. Until we see them and hear from them in their own voice and their own stories, I think it will remain very, very easy for us to remain attached to our stereotypes and imagine those others, those other people, are rightly disposed of.

I believe that one day we will step back and see the humanity of those who commit the worst offenses imaginable, and have the courage to discover the root causes and cycles of trauma that motivated them.

I will be voting for Prop 47, and I encourage you to sign up for updates from the campaign and volunteer, if you have time.

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Learn more at
Brian Sonenstein
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