California’s Nov. 3 ballot features two propositions dealing with the state prison system. They reflect diametrically opposite approaches to incarceration.

Proposition 20 is a tough-on-crime measure that, among other things, seeks to place restrictions on parole and to give parole boards more grounds to say no. Prop. 20 echoes the law-and-order campaigns beginning in the 1980s that bloated the state prison population and led to a boom in prison construction. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) went from 25,000 inmates and eight prisons to 160,000 felons and 35 institutions. 

Meanwhile, Proposition 17 asks voters to approve a prison reform measure that seeks to give ex-offenders the right to vote while they remain on parole. Prop. 17 is in keeping with the more recent trends, begun under former Gov. Jerry Brown, in taking a more humane approach toward incarceration.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper co-authored Proposition 20. (Courtesy photo)

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove,  a 30-year member of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and an African American, went against his own Democratic Party to co-author Prop. 20. He says, “The goal of the initiative is to reform the unintended consequences of reforms to protect the public better.”

If passed, for example, the punishment would become harsher for those repeatedly convicted of theft. Prop. 20 further tightens the requirements for parole. It requires people who have been convicted of certain misdemeanor offenses to submit DNA to state databases. To Cooper and other supporters, including a number of law enforcement unions, “This will make everybody safer.”

Prop. 20 would come with a substantial price tag. The independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, wrote, “We estimate that more than several thousand people would be affected by the proposition each year. As a result, we estimate that the increase in state and local correctional costs would likely be in the tens of millions of dollars annually.”

“Prop. 20 would incarcerate people for longer,” said Vinhcent Lee of The Greenlining Institute.

“For California, Prop. 20 really doesn’t make sense,” said Vinhcent Le, legal counsel for the California think tank The Greenlining Institute. “The state is facing an unprecedented budget crisis. … And Prop. 20 would incarcerate people for longer. [The state] would be spending on jails and prisons tens of millions of dollars annually in additional costs.”

Le added that the rhetoric used by the proponents of Prop. 20 was engineered to stoke fear about prisoners being released, to appeal to “base instincts in folks rather than, you know, a focused discussion of the policy benefits and how this will help California.”

Ex-offenders say that making parole requirements stiffer could backfire.

Chanton Bun, who was released from San Quentin earlier this year after serving more than 20 years, said Prop. 20 and other measures that make parole more difficult can undermine the rehabilitation processes. He said he saw the mobilizing effect the possibility of parole can have on prisoners after a previous progressive law passed.

“Before people didn’t want to do any classes because they had no hope in paroling,” Bun said. “So once [people convicted of life without parole began getting released], everybody’s like, you know, what, I have hope now. Not hope to live in an environment just for me to survive, but for me to thrive and get out.”

Since 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California’s prisons amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” the CDCR has been struggling to reduce its inmate population. When COVID-19 struck California prisons, officials implemented rapid release programs, resulting in almost 10,000 prisoners being released by July. Still, as of September 2020, state adult prisons operate at just over 111% capacity

Under California’s Constitution, a person convicted of a felony may not cast a ballot while on parole. Prop. 17 would amend the state constitution to allow the franchise for formerly incarcerated people while they are on parole.

Prop. 20 supporters

• U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R)
• Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D)
• Assemblyman Vince Fong (R)
• Republican Party of California
• Orange County Board of Supervisors
Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs
Los Angeles Police Protective League
Peace Officers Research Association of California
Albertsons (Safeway) 


Prop. 20 opponents

• Former Gov. Jerry Brown (D)
• California Democratic Party
Patty Quillin, philanthropist
Lynn Schusterman, philanthropist
• California Labor Federation
• California Teachers Association
• SEIU California State Council
• ACLU of California
• ACLU of Northern California
• ACLU of Southern California
• California League of Conservation Voters
• California Partnership to End Domestic Violence
• Chan Zuckerberg Advocacy
• Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice
• Equality California
• League of Women Voters of California
• National Center for Crime Victims
• NextGen California
• Public Defenders Association
• University of California Student Association

Source: Ballotpedia

* For voter information on the California general election, please visit the state website.