Over the last three decades, Californians have swung from “tough on crime” conservatism to a more lenient, less punitive approach to criminal justice. Based on the results of this year’s election, it doesn’t look like the pendulum is swinging back anytime soon.
Already the state had gradually eased up on sentencing standards, made it easier for inmates to qualify for parole, and reduced its prison population. These changes in the last few years have been made inside the Capitol, in court houses and at the ballot box, and were a dramatic departure from the crackdown era that was characterized by laws with unflinching slogans such as “three strikes and you’re out.”
This year, voters were given the opportunity to start swinging back toward stricter penalties — and opted not to.
Proposition 20 would have given prosecutors new powers to charge certain non-violent crimes as felonies and made it harder for long-time inmates to qualify for early-release consideration. As of late this afternoon, the measure is down by 24 points with the vote count continuing, and the Associated Press has projected its defeat.
That’s proof, Prop. 20 opponents say, that Californians are still committed to a more progressive vision of criminal justice. Chief among them: former Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent his most recent stint as governor pushing for that vision and who spent millions to defeat the measure.
“In voting down Prop. 20, California voters signaled once again that they believe most human beings can turn their lives around if given the chance,” Brown said in a statement released on election night.
Voters also backed Proposition 17, a measure to give Californians on parole the right to vote.
It Was Thanks to Many of Those Activists That Gascon Entered the Race
And in Los Angeles, the state’s largest county, voters were opting to replace current District Attorney Jackie Lacey with former San Francisco prosecutor George Gascon. In a race widely seen as a referendum on a more progressive, less police-friendly prosecutorial style informed by the Black Lives Matter movement, the progressive won. Gascon joins a growing stable of like-minded district attorneys — San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, Contra Costa County’s Diana Becton and San Joaquin County’s Tori Verber Salazar.
The first Black district attorney in Los Angeles and the first woman, Lacey has played the role of police-aligned moderate in this year’s campaign. “Moderate” is a relative term in Los Angeles County. But Lacey was the favorite in Los Angeles’ whiter, more affluent, more suburban areas. With endorsements from every major law enforcement union in the county and the state, she also incurred the displeasure of anti-police-violence activists who criticized her for never having prosecuted any law enforcement officer who shot an unarmed civilian since she was elected in 2012.
It was thanks to many of those activists that Gascon entered the race. With a full-fledged media campaign including a freeway adjacent billboard in San Francisco, they actively recruited him to run against Lacey. Despite his professional history as a cop, Gascon built a national reputation as a reform-minded prosecutor, helping to write a state ballot measure in 2014 that knocked many non-violent felonies down to misdemeanors. Lacey opposed that.
Gascon entered the race with high-profile progressive endorsers: Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren. But after the killing of George Floyd, with Democratic leaders scrambling to signal their openness to progressive bonafides on the issue of policing, Gascon also picked up the endorsement of Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.
That political momentum also seems to have propelled Measure J to a likely victory. A budget measure that would divert 10% of the county’s discretionary funds to social services, jail diversion programs and affordable housing — and explicitly away from law enforcement — also became a pitched battle between law enforcement unions and progressive activists. Here too, the activists are ahead.
And in the Bay Area, San Francisco passed a measure to allow city officials to reduce the size of the police force, and both San Jose and Berkeley approved new police oversight boards.