This November, California voters will have the opportunity to make significant changes to the state’s penal law.
by Alex Landon
Over the past 30 years there have been a number of propositions in California which have impacted the rights of those who wind up in the criminal justice system. The defense bar has attempted to get the public to understand why these propositions do not fight crime or make people safer. We have been outspent by special interests who have benefited economically and politically by these propositions. It has also been difficult for us to get our message out in short sound bites that can be understood by those who vote. Whereas the proponents have been able to purchase ads and in just a few seconds spread misleading information or just plain lies in order to get fearful voters to support their propositions.
In 1982 Proposition 8, the so-called Victims Bill of Rights, became the first of a series of multi-issue propositions which made significant changes to the way we practice criminal law in California. Unfortunately the California Supreme Court in Brosnahan v. Eu, (1982) 31 Cal.3d 1, said that Prop.8 did not violate the single subject rule in the California Constitution, which was supposed to prevent confusing and misleading propositions from being passed into law.
Clearly Prop. 8 was both confusing and complex, and covered a number of subjects. I remember speaking to a group of Forensic Psychiatrists in San Diego after Prop. 8 passed and asking those who had voted for the proposition what impact it had on mental health defenses. Not one proponent was able to tell me what impact this proposition had on matters they would be asked to provide opinions on. Prop. 8 had changed the definition of insanity and changed the defense of diminished capacity to diminished actuality in California. You can imagine the lack of understanding most of those who voted for Prop. 8 had with respect to the substance of the proposition. It had an appealing title, and that seemed to carry the day. How could anyone vote against “victim’s rights”?
This year, instead of having to fight against some Draconian proposition which would further erode our client’s rights, there are actually two positive changes to our criminal justice system which we can support. In November the voters in California will have the opportunity to limit the maximum punishment for murder with Special Circumstances to Life Without Parole, and to amend the Three Strikes law to require the instant offense to be a serious or violent crime to be considered a third strike.
There are many reasons why it makes sense for California to rid itself of the death penalty. We in the defense bar are all too familiar with the arbitrariness of who gets selected for this punishment and who does not; the racial disparities related to both the victim and our clients; issues related to the quality of the representation of the client; and the actual innocence of numerous individuals who have been sentenced to death; just to name a few. However, this year one very important issue which may impact even those who favor the death penalty, is the cost. With California facing a severe budget crisis, and threats of further school cuts, public safety cuts, and state park cuts, it is important to recognize that we could save a billion dollars in the next five years if we did not have to fund the death machine in California. We know that it is much less expensive to house a prisoner for the rest of their life than to attempt to kill them.
With respect to the Three Strikes law, the economic argument also applies. To sentence someone who has committed a non-serious or non-violent offense to 25 years to life is a waste of precious resources. A majority of those convicted and sentenced under our Three Strikes Law did not commit a serious or violent offense. There is also a disparity on who is punished under the law based on which county you happen to be convicted in and based on the color of your skin. We cannot allow the type of deceptive advertising from the past to go unanswered this November. Those who were convicted of a serious or violent offense will not be released, and those who commit a serious or violent offense and have previously been convicted of two serious and/or violent offenses will face 25 years to life.
It is only a little over four months until November 6th. We need to spread the truth about these two propositions. We need to reach out to family, friends, neighbors, and any other individual or group that will be able to vote in favor of making a positive change to our criminal justice system and our community. We can use money saved by the passage of these propositions to actually make our society safer. We need to donate time and money to insure that these two propositions pass in November.
Alex Landon is a prominent defense attorney in San Diego.