More Ballot Wars: The Cost of Crime and Punishment

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

The cost of prisons, prisoners and public safety could be a major issue on November’s ballot.   If certain initiatives qualify for the ballot, voters will have to decide between their desire for taxpayer savings within the criminal justice system and California’s traditional tough-on-crime stand.

Initiatives are moving forward to change the Three Strikes law by giving courts more discretion on sentencing a third conviction.  A second initiative will ask voters to do away with the death penalty. Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown is pushing his tax increase proposal called the “Schools and Public Safety Protection Act” that helps fund the realignment of state prisoners to local lock-ups.

Given the state’s dire fiscal condition, proponents of the Three Strikes and death penalty reform measures are pushing cost savings as a major plus if voters pass the reforms.

The Three Strikes reform proponents will note the fiscal summary of their initiative which says it could save $100-million over time. Death penalty foes have pointed to studies that claim to show that keeping a convicted murderer in jail is cheaper than execution, a charge that has been dismissed by supporters of the death penalty.

Voters have supported the death penalty in the past. They have rejected efforts to soften the Three Strikes law. Many in the law enforcement community have told the pubic that shifting prisoners to the local level comes with some risk.

Will the state’s financial difficulties cause voters to give these measures a second look if they believe the tax dollars will be saved?

Appeals to change the justice system while saving tax dollars have been successful in the past.

Voters approved combining the municipal and superior court systems. Taxpayer savings was one of the major arguments made in the ballot booklet argument on this measure. Voters passed Proposition 36, which promised less prison time and more rehabilitation for drug users with a cost savings to the government treasury. The argument was convincing and the measure passed.  Since that time, there has been a dispute between those who say the measure did not live up to promises and supporters who said it’s funding was abandoned and the program was not allowed to work.

Still, when it comes to public safety, voters tend to be less concerned with cost and more concerned with their safety. The dollar savings argument may not be enough.

Some proponents of the reforms recognize this. Supporters of changing the Three Strikes law also argue the fairness of the issue — pointing out that the third strike for minor crime will offend the voter’s sense of fairness.

But then how will the fairness argument work in the case of the death penalty? Many believe, in fairness to the vicitim, the ultimate crime of murder deserves the ultimate punishment of execution.

Furthermore, voters may be confused by seeing a measure that calls for tax increases to protect public safety at the same time being told by opponents of changes to Three Strikes and the death penalty that these measures will weaken public safety.

Ballot experts tell us that voters will probably not make any connections between the different measures but decide each one on their own merits.

Or, given the many initiatives on the ballot they might throw up their hands and just vote NO.

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