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Photograph by Alvaro Alvarez
SOLE PURPOSE: A Prop. 6 protester on foot

Beyond Tough

The failure of Prop. 6 may signal the end of punitive anti-crime laws

By Raj Jayadev

ECLIPSED by the enormity of a nation voting in a black president, and a statewide culture war ignited over gay marriage, is the fact that California registered one the most dramatic and significant shifts in attitude over incarceration policies in state history this past election.

A classic "tough on crime" initiative, Prop. 6 was overwhelmingly rejected by voters across the state—a count of 70 percent to 30 percent—and did not win a majority in a single county. With little news coverage, and no commercials on either side leading up to the election, the trouncing of Prop. 6 appears to be a clear reflection of California's new mind-set on criminal justice policies. The numbers point to a repudiation of "lock 'em all up" politics that has dominated the state for decades.

Prop. 6 was an ambitious, catch-all initiative that targeted youth, immigrants and even families of those who had been involved in the criminal justice system. The proposition would have created more than 30 changes in the law. It would have turned some nonviolent misdemeanors into felonies, dramatically increased prison sentences for "gang-related" crimes, put 14-year-olds in the adult system, mandated regular criminal background checks on families in public housing with aims of removal, and denied bail to undocumented immigrants facing certain felony charges. It would have cost an estimated $965 million to fund annually.

But even though this was a far-reaching attempt to lock up more Californians, proponents had reason to believe they were facing good odds, given the track record of previous tough-on-crime proposals.

The three-strikes law, which doubles sentences for second offenses, and gives a life sentence on the third, was passed in 1994 with numbers inversely mirroring the Prop. 6 results (72 percent in favor), and has withstood repeated legal and legislative attempts to be repealed. Prop. 21 passed easily in 2000, further cementing anti-gang laws and lowered the age for minors to be convicted and sentenced as adults.

Ironically, though, it may have been the consequences of these tough-on-crime laws that caused voters to depart from their previous voting pattern.

California, upon the governor's orders, is in a prison-overcrowding State of Emergency. The Legislature was forced to authorize $7.7 billion to create more beds at state prisons over the next 10 years. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state's prison population is more than 170,000 inmates housed in facilities designed for 100,000.Any policy that would increase prison rates, given the current crisis, apparently seemed irrational to voters. Any proposition with a billion-dollar price tag was going to be a hard sell.

Outside of the fiscal argument against Prop. 6 is the fact that the proposal was unpopular with young people of color. In Santa Clara County, black youths are arrested at a rate of seven times their proportion in the general population. Any new law that would increase incarceration would simultaneously increase the conscience-shocking racial disproportionality as well.

And of course we knew who was at the polls this time around: youth and people of color—those more likely to know firsthand how prison destroys families. Indeed, the contradiction would be too large for an electorate to overwhelmingly vote for a black man to be president and yet at the same time potentially commit thousands of black men to a life behind bars.

Immigrant youth, the same group that in 2006 sparked the largest protest marches in this country's history, already knew what tactics worked. Without the gloss of a campaign public relations firm, their efforts took on the feel of a movement. Young people from East Palo Alto sent weekly fact texts like "Did you know Prop. 6 would lock up youth as adults? Pass it on." In San Jose, they held rallies in front of the jails. Across the state, youth posted YouTube videos, made rap songs and MySpace pages.

The impact may be felt across the country in coming years. We know that made-in-California proposals become the template laws for other states, and even federal legislation. Currently, more than half of all the states in the country now have anti-gang laws that are based on the language of California legislation, and there are eight similar proposals pending in Congress. All now appear vulnerable.

Stopping Prop. 6 may be the biggest "change" that never made headlines.

Raj Jayadev is an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug.


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