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Prop. 5 and the Bill of Rights

Skaidra Smith-Heisters
October 26, 2008, 5:13pm

Today's Associated Press headline on the legal dispute over medical care in California prisons reads, "Calif. prison case to test state sovereignty." The root of the issue is the state's failure to meet Constitutional standards of treatment in prison, so this isn't a routine question of state sovereignty, hinging on the role of the federal government as defined in the Constitution. Instead, this "federalism dispute of the very highest order" (in the words of the judge overseeing the case) is about what recourse there is when a governor, allegedly in contempt of court, refuses to make amends to an unconstitutional situation in the method prescribed by federal authorities. The proposed method is building 10,000 more medical beds. Another method is releasing prisoners early. That's something the state has considered, but is not doing right now. Proposition 9 would amend the state Constitution to take that option off the table--possibly the worst, most far-reaching provision of that ballot measure. A third option is to work quickly to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders being sent to prison in the first place, and stop returning people who have already served prison sentences back to prison for minor offenses. That's the method that would be implemented by Proposition 5. It's no coincidence that the Prop. 5 campaign has a new ad out today--
The ad highlights the ballot language prepared by the LAO: that Prop. 5 will result in "capital outlay savings potentially exceeding $2.5 billion." The LAO's analysis has impressed other groups concerned with the state's fiscal health: Adrian Moore, of the Reason Foundation, said "Proposition 5 is taxpayers' only hope of getting prison spending under control, and the only choice on the ballot for voters concerned with our state's fiscal solvency." Richard Holober, of the Consumer Federation of California, said, "Prop. 5 is a good deal for California taxpayers. It's the only measure on the ballot that will reduce state spending. In these economic times, California can't afford not to pass Prop. 5." According to the LAO, Prop. 5 will reduce the state prison population by at least 18,000 and the number of people on parole by 22,000.
In a way, when Sen. Diane Feinstein tried to smear Proposition 5 by calling it the "drug dealers bill of rights" she was partly correct--not about anything she said in her press release on the subject, which was completely wrong, not to mention boding very very ill for any chance of resolving the prison crisis if she's the next governor--but Prop. 5 is very much about the Bill of Rights.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters is Policy Analyst


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