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Editorial: Justice reforms are at risk at the ballot box. Protest now, vote in November

Protesters are arrested by Los Angeles police in front of City Hall
Protesters are arrested by Los Angeles police in front of City Hall on May 30.
(Los Angeles Times)

Some protesters who have taken to the streets to express their outrage at the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other killings and abuse of African Americans have argued that little has changed in the last 10 years for people caught up in the criminal justice system. But is that true in California? Is anyone any better off than they were before?

You better believe it. There have been enormous strides toward equal justice and basic fairness.

Brutally excessive prison sentences have been corrected, marijuana possession has been decriminalized, possession of small amounts of other drugs is once again a misdemeanor rather than a felony, laws treating juveniles as monstrous superpredators have been repealed, parole has been restored. Nightmarish and inhumane prison crowding has been reduced, once-unaccountable law enforcement agencies have been assigned civilian oversight and monitoring, new jail construction has been blocked and Los Angeles County officials have been ordered to spend more of the public safety budget on mental health care and other rehabilitative programs instead of arrests and incarceration, or at least to consider it.

This kind of progress once depended almost exclusively on individual victims of injustice taking their cases to court and slogging through years of appeals, until the Supreme Court or circuit justices ended longstanding but unconstitutional excesses. And indeed this decade of progress began with a lawsuit over cruel and unusual treatment of state prisoners and a court order to decrease inmate crowding. Lawmakers responded by assigning counties new responsibilities for holding — and rehabilitating — less-serious offenders.

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And then, tired of waiting for lawmakers to right-size sentences, voters took over. Beginning in 2012, Californians directly adopted one landmark criminal justice reform measure after another, including Proposition 47 and Proposition 57. Notably, crime numbers continued their historic decline after the reforms were in place.

Just three months ago, L.A. County voters overwhelmingly adopted Measure R, which grants the still-new Civilian Oversight Commission the power to compel production of official documents and the testimony of the sheriff. (Sheriff Alex Villanueva is challenging the measure in court.)

Measure R grew out of an activist campaign to target unconscionable county jail abuse in much the same way federal judges corrected state prisons. The measure’s origins can be traced to an organizing campaign by the families of inmates subjected to physical beatings, poor mental health care and subhuman quarters. Over the years, activists mobilized against construction of a new jail and shaped the ballot measure to curb the sheriff’s misuse of power and his mistreatment of those in his charge. Passage on March 3 culminated close to a decade of grassroots work.

In an essay published Monday, former President Obama noted how protests and political activism each had a role to play.

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“I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time,” Obama wrote. “I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.”

Or, Obama might have added, when voters change the laws directly through initiatives like Measure R or the ones that modified the Three Strikes law and did away with excessive penalties for drug possession.

But voting requires vigilance, because the powerful forces that resist constructive change never rest. In California they are currently mobilizing to undermine the last decade’s achievements by fooling voters into reversing themselves.

The bail bond industry muscled an initiative onto the November ballot to try to undo a 2019 law that allows many accused people to await trial at home even if they have no money for bail. (The law is suspended pending the vote.) The industry’s allies in law enforcement and among elected prosecutors are courting voters with half-truths, falsely claiming that a current, temporary emergency bail order that protects suspects and staff against the spread of the coronavirus in jails and prisons endangers the public.

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Another November measure would roll back Proposition 47 by requiring that many people convicted of misdemeanors for drug possession and petty thefts once again be treated as felons, and reverse part of Proposition 57 by stripping away parole for many inmates. The retrogressive initiative is backed by police unions and others who are unhappy with recent hard-won reforms.

Just last week, rollback supporters attempted to drum up enthusiasm for their cause with an assertion that is breathtakingly false: that Proposition 47 prevents prosecution for looting. Utter nonsense.

Justice reformers lose ground when they pay insufficient attention to their ballots. In 2017, the Los Angeles Police Protective League and its allies on the City Council duped voters into scuttling crucial police discipline reforms that dated back to the brutal beating of Rodney King. Protesters demonstrating today for police accountability take note — this inattention at the ballot box actually empowered officers accused of misconduct and now makes it harder to fire them. Don’t let that happen again.

And don’t heed the politicians responsible for those rollbacks who today, with straight faces, profess solidarity with protesters against police abuse.

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Don’t be like voters in Santa Ana, who in recent weeks answered their police union’s call to oust a City Council member. Her offense? Objecting to irresponsible pay increases for cops that the city simply cannot afford without deep cuts to other services.

It makes little sense to protest police violence while voting in favor of measures that weaken police discipline and loot city budgets to raise police pay. Change that begins on the streets must be followed up with voter education, voter mobilization and voter action. Police unions, bail bondsmen and others who don’t like criminal justice reform know how to get their people to the polls. Don’t let them be the only ones.


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