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Thomas D. Elias: Would Prop. 20 help against wildfires, crime?
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Thomas D. Elias: Would Prop. 20 help against wildfires, crime?

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Prison fence

Anyone examining the unintended consequences of California’s many past ballot propositions cannot possibly ignore what was accomplished by the 2014 Proposition 14 and its follow-up measure, 2016’s eponymous Proposition 16.

This fall, Proposition 20 is designed to remedy some of those effects.

Both the earlier measures passed by margins of more than 60-40 percent. Both aimed to lower the state’s prison population, which had long exceeded intended capacities by many thousands of convicts. They did this by making misdemeanors out of former felony crimes like firearm and vehicle thefts, grand theft, credit card fraud and other types of stealing, so long as the value of what criminals took did not exceed $950. It’s anyone’s guess where that arbitrary figure originated.

Those changes came in Prop. 14. They were supplemented by Prop. 16, which allowed for earlier than ever paroles for “non-violent” crimes including sex trafficking of children, rape of unconscious persons and felony assault with a deadly weapon, all absurdly mis-classified as not so dastardly.

Soon afterward, violent crime began rising in some places; in Los Angeles last year, it was up 69.5 percent since 2013.

These were certainly unintended consequences, even if they were predicted in the ballot arguments against both Props. 14 and 16, not to be confused with initiatives on this fall’s ballot that carry the same numbers.

Critics also predict higher crime will result from the state’s ongoing early releases of many thousands of prisoners who were within less than a year of fulfilling their sentences, even though that has not happened yet in most places. About 8,000 inmates had been let go early as of the beginning of September in an effort to prevent worsening of outbreaks of COVID-19 in several high-security penitentiaries.

No one predicted what all this prison-emptying would mean for wildfires, where convict firefighters have long been an underpaid but essential part of California’s defenses.

Some of them recently called that form of convict work “slave labor,” while others responded that the service inspired them and led them to seek firefighter jobs after leaving custody.

One unquestioned effect of the reduced number of prison “trustee” firefighters was that the state hired nearly 900 new seasonal firefighters to make up for the dwindling supply of convict shock troops. As of midsummer, only 94 of the state’s usual 192 units of inmate firefighters were available. The coronavirus was hindering efforts to train up more inmate crews. Then came the summer’s unprecedented spate of wildfires, at one point seeing dozens of major blazes in almost all vulnerable parts of California.

Enter Prop. 20, due to be voted on through most of October and on the official Nov. 3 Election Day.

Its stated aim is to “prevent early release of violent felons.” It would do this by reclassifying some crimes now officially and strangely considered non-violent, despite their inherently violent nature.

Says an official state summary, “A yes vote…means people who commit…theft-related crimes could receive increased penalties.” It would also prevent convicted child molesters, sexual predators and violent criminals from winning early prison releases.

Passing this would indicate a new, less crime-tolerant attitude in California. This would require a shift of at least 10 percent of the electorate away from supporting the earlier prison-emptying measures.

At the same time, it could provide thousands of additional potential convict firefighters, who usually see their sentences reduced in exchange for very risky service on the fire lines.

Opponents call this “a prison spending scam,” charging the yes side wants to “scare voters into spending tens of millions on prisons, which could force draconian cuts to rehabilitation, schools, mental health care and (increase) homelessness.”

No one has yet established a direct connection, but homelessness proliferated in California simultaneously with the advent of the prison emptying measures.

All this is up for argument right now, but there is no doubt that well over 1 million acres of wild land and hundreds of homes burned in the first two months of the official fire season.

Voters can now decide whether they believe the shortage of inmate firefighters helped cause all this damage, and what – if anything – to do about it.



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Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”

Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”

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