There are too many parallels between life under California’s current criminal justice system and life in Paris, France in 1815, when the acts of criminals hung over them for the rest of their lives.
Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables” takes place in this same time period in Paris.
In the novel, ex-convict Jean Valjean struggles to escape his criminal past from a system that doesn’t believe in forgiveness.
Although it is situated within a work of fiction, the world Valjean lived in resembles many aspects of the criminal justice system in California today.
In California, thousands of men and women from impoverished neighborhoods are forever affected by a system that makes it near impossible for these people to get back on their feet. If the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, known as Proposition 47, passes on Election Day, emphasis will be placed where it is due: on treatment rather than punishment.
Mass-incarceration is a significant problem in the United States, as the country incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. We spend more money on prisons than on schools, rehabilitation centers and crime prevention programs, according to CNN and Los Angeles Times articles. This shows that the state values punishment over treatment and prevention.
Even after inmates are released, they remain under the control of the criminal justice system for years or for life. They are often prevented from voting and receiving public housing, food stamps or student loans. This legal discrimination has cost millions of Americans their ability to function as normal citizens, branding them as a community of unwanted people.
Today, 60 percent of our prison population consists of non-violent offenders that aren’t being dealt with in the proper way.
A classic case of an inmate facing charges on non-violent crimes is Ray Rivera of San Diego, who was featured in a L.A. Times article. Addicted to drugs, Rivera stole $50 of merchandise from a store to buy more. Instead of being treated for his drug problem, Rivera was sent to prison where his condition worsened.
The time is here to declare that prisons are not the best solution for such individuals.
Proposition 47 aims to re-evaluate California’s tough approach to crime by changing certain nonviolent crimes — petty theft, receiving stolen property, forging or writing bad checks of $950 or more, and drug possession for personal use — from a felony to a misdemeanor. This would put a stop to wasting prison money and space on low-level, non-violent crimes, while maintaining the current law for registered sex offenders and anyone with prior convictions for murder, rape or child molestation.
If implemented, this initiative will create a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund that would provide educational, preventative and treatment programs financed by money saved by the state.
The state needs more efficient investments that give people the ability to turn their lives around and become law abiding and productive citizens.
Many states have already shifted their approach to nonviolent convictions. For example, Texas stopped expanding prisons and used their resources for different purposes, such as drug treatment and mental health services. Texas’ violent crime rates are currently the lowest they’ve been since 1977.
Now voters in California will have a chance to do the same.