Thoughts on some of California’s ballot propositions

There are some important measures on the California ballot this year. After reading through the voter pamphlet, here are my thoughts on a few, may they be of use to you.

64: Marijuana legalization — Yes

Legalizes recreational use of marijuana, establishes regulating agencies, imposes taxes, and erases existing marijuana convictions.

This may be the most important one. Although marijuana use will likely increase if this proposition passes, and in some respects this will be a bad thing, I think that the benefits will vastly outweigh the costs. The downsides: there will be more potheads, and there may be more traffic accidents assuming people don’t substitute drinking with smoking. Compare that with some of the problems associated with marijuana criminalization:

  • destruction of young people’s lives via criminal records
  • mass murder through the illegal drug trade
  • institutional racism
  • prevention of reliable marijuana studies
  • waste of taxpayer money through prosecution
  • overcrowding of jails
  • introduction of users into the illegal market
  • prevention of an activity that improves many people’s lives

It seems clear to me that this proposition is on the right side of history. For some great case studies on how drug criminalization affects people, I recommend the recent book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari.

63: Firearms restrictions — Yes

Requires background checks for ammunition, prohibits large magazines, requires ammunition vendors to have licenses, requires lost guns to be reported, prohibits people convicted of stealing guns from owning them.

It’s hard for me to see why people oppose this initiative. The main claims in the voter pamphlet are that it is a burden on gun owners and that it doesn’t do the right things to control gun violence. It seems absolutely reasonable that people who want to own objects intended to kill people should face a minor burden in order to help prevent bad actors from owning them. I agree that many other things should be done to reduce gun violence (such as training requirements), but that should not prevent us from ever doing anything.

62: Death penalty repeal — Yes

Removes the option of the death penalty in California and changes all existing death sentences to life without parole.

The printed arguments against this measure appeal almost exclusively to emotion. The strongest argument I can see against it is that the death penalty actually helps innocent defendants by automatically appealing their cases to the CA supreme court and encourages further legal challenges on their behalf. This results in a significantly higher percentage of exonerations in death sentence cases than life imprisonment cases. However, these appeals overwhelm the capability of the CA supreme court, extending the cases for decades and incurring litigation costs of $150M to the state annually. In addition, there are major problems with the humane administration of lethal injections, which have resulted in a stay on executions in CA for the past 10 years. Since 1978, only 15 of CA’s 930 death row inmates have been executed. The death penalty system in CA is a huge mess, and I don’t see a good way to fix it. If we are going to execute someone, I think we need to do our best to make sure that that person is guilty, and in order to do that we must allow the full appeal process to occur. Taking shortcuts to simplify the system and save money doesn’t seem appropriate to me, as discussed below for Prop 66, which attempts to do so.

66: Death penalty repair — No

Attempts to reduce the time and cost associated with administering the death penalty.

The sponsors of this measure are people who strongly believe in the death penalty and wish to fix the administrative problems with it while preserving it. The measure seems well intentioned and if I thought that it could work I might support it. However, I just don’t see a basic inefficiency in the way we administer the death penalty, so I don’t think there is a way to make it cheaper and faster without significantly increasing the risk of executing innocents. I think that if we value the death penalty, we need to be willing to pay the real costs of administering it prudently. We currently pay those costs, and they are greater than we can bear. Greater, it seems to me, than whatever abstract justice we might derive from the practice. This initiative proposes to fix the system by imposing time limits on the appeal process and reassigning cases from the CA supreme court to the appeals courts. I think that the former will increase the likelihood of false executions, and the latter will increase the cost of the practice by requiring an increase in the scope of the courts.

57: Criminal sentence reduction — Yes

Allows parole consideration for persons convicted of non-violent felonies once they have completed the full term for their primary offense. Also enables the Department of Corrections to more liberally award credits for good behavior and rehabilitation activity.

Opponents’ main argument is that the definition of “non-violent” here includes many crimes that most people would consider violent, including certain cases of assault, rape, and domestic violence. As far as I can tell, the term is somewhat poorly defined, but I don’t believe that the authors of the measure are trying to trick us. This measure will serve to alleviate a major problem that California has with overcrowding of prisons and the associated financial and social costs. I also believe that people should not be jailed for non-violent drug offenses, and this proposition would be a step in the right direction in that regard. The risk of a small minority of dangerous offenders being released early seems like a manageable one in order for us to make needed improvements to the criminal justice system, especially given that all early paroles will still require review and approval.