Editorial Note: As Election Day 2016 nears, we kick off a weekly series of opinion pieces on ballot propositions of particular concern to our communities. #PropDropFriday will bring you a total of eight posts in all, leading up to Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8. The series is designed to help you, the voter, make sense of some critical choices among an unusually large set of propositions on this year’s ballot. We are thrilled to begin this series with the following contribution from Bay Area writer and GLIDE community member LeRon L. Barton. We welcome your feedback and hope you’ll share this and following posts with friends and family as part of an active, engaged and committed conversation about the future of our city, state and country.
When I learned that the California Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements Initiative, otherwise known as Prop 57, would be on the ballot this November, my curiosity was immediately piqued. I am a writer who has published essays on the destruction of mass incarceration. I am a co-chair of the GLIDE Memorial Church Racial Justice Group, a team devoted to fighting racism/white supremacy. Most importantly, I am a Black man in America. I see the importance of Prop 57.
In a 2015 report published by the State of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the prison population in 2016 is projected to be 127,815. Many of these offenders have been imprisoned on theft and drug crimes. Prop 57 would increase parole chances for felons convicted of non-violent crimes and give them more opportunities to earn credits for good behavior.
It would also allow judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court, which is significant due to the passing of Prop 21 in 2000, which gave the discretion to prosecutors. The San Jose Mercury News reported Human Rights Watch as saying that, since 2003, “more than 10,000 California offenders under 18 have been tried as adults—and 7,200 of them are directly filed in adult court with no oversight by a judge.”
Furthermore, Prop 57 would decrease the swelling inmate count in California by continuing the great work of Governor Jerry Brown and Prop 47, the 2014 initiative he endorsed that reclassifies some drug and property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The impact of Prop 57 would be felt by releasing many Black and Brown men that have been incarcerated by non-violent drug-related crimes. The Public Policy Institute of California reports that while African Americans make up 29% of the population, they are imprisoned at a rate of 4.367 for every 100,000 inmates, compared to white inmates who are incarcerated at 488 for every 100,000. Prop 57 would begin to turn the tide against the systematic racism of the California judicial system.
Growing up in the late ’80s, I saw the destruction that crack cocaine and the “war on drugs” had on my community. Many families had been ripped apart by addiction and draconian drug laws such as mandatory minimums and the so-called “three-strikes” law. Young men and women who had made mistakes were paying unfairly exorbitant prices for bad decisions. Our prisons had been filling up due to “life-style crimes” and, overwhelmingly, Black and Brown people constituted the bulk of the penalized population. I remember a few people from my neighborhood who fell victim to the war on drugs and languished in greater confinement, not able to make parole or accumulate credit for good behavior. There was one friend in particular whose brother was arrested for selling marijuana to pay rent and support himself though school. One ill-advised choice cost him 10 months of his life, and the time that was lost made it harder for him to resume his studies and his life. It is my belief that a measure like Prop 57 would have helped him re-enter society more quickly and reunite with his famliy.
Last year, I was given a chance to visit San Quentin prison and listen to inmates talk about the rehabilitation programs the facility offered. While I was not surprised at the intellect these men possessed, what struck me as sad, for all of us, was the potential being squandered—brilliant men that could make a positive impact on society are literally locked away. Let’s go to the polls and support the rehabilitation and re-acclimation of men and women in California’s overcrowded prisons. Please join me and GLIDE in recovering some of this potential by voting “yes” on Prop 57.
LeRon L. Barton is a writer from Kansas City, Missouri, who currently resides in San Francisco. He has been writing poetry, screenplays and short stories since he was way young. LeRon’s essays about race, mass incarceration, gender and dating have appeared in Salon, The Good Men Project, Those People, AlterNet, SF Bay View, Buzzfeed, Gorilla Convict and Elephant Journal. His first book, Straight Dope: A 360 degree look into American drug culture, was released in February 2013. LeRon’s new book, All We Really Need Is Love, is available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at www.mainlinepub.com, twitter.com/MainlineLeRon and Facebook.com/LeRonLBarton