California Leaders Mislead Public, Reduce Penalties for Crimes with Deceptively Named Propositions


John Barrick

Historically, America’s approach to criminal justice swings back and forth like a pendulum between an emphasis on punishment and an emphasis on rehabilitation. Wisdom incorporates both approaches, but in California, the pendulum has swung heavily toward the rehabilitative aspect of accountability as opposed to punishment. While setting aside a full comparison of the two approaches, this article focuses on the current government’s tactic of misleading the public about propositions that use a message of “public safety” to impose significant criminal justice reforms.


It is the responsibility of governments to be transparent and truthful about their legislative goals and why they deem them necessary — especially when they affect crime victims’ rights. Yet California political leaders have decided instead to mislead the public in a series of criminal justice reform statutes that have had serious consequences for crime victims. Those initial changes have led to a slew of new proposals that essentially reward criminals for inflicting pain and suffering on others.

The two best examples of the government misleading the public can be seen in recent propositions approved by voters that had nothing to do with accomplishing what these propositions claimed they wanted to achieve. In November 2014, voters approved “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” known at the ballot box as Proposition 47. Many voters never bother to read the fine print associated with the laws on which they are asked to vote or rely on 30-second paid advertisements to get their information. Voters trust that when it comes to legislation, political leaders will not mislead them about the purpose or effect of the legislation being proposed.

Unfortunately, Proposition 47 made a number of changes to the criminal justice system, of which many voters were likely unaware. First, it reduced all drug possession cases that were formerly felonies to misdemeanors. Second, it allowed for the reduction of most felonious property theft crimes to misdemeanors absent a finding that the theft resulted in more than $950 in loss, which rarely occurs. Third, it allowed these changes to apply retroactively. This means if anyone had previously been convicted of one of these crimes as a felony, they could now petition to have those crimes resentenced to misdemeanors, even if the person had already served his or her punishment.

To sum up, Proposition 47 greatly reduced the punishment for numerous offenses associated with drug possession and property crimes. While some citizens have called for criminal justice reform over the years, viewing penalties for so-called “low-level crimes” such as these as too extreme, these reforms did nothing to make neighborhoods and schools safer, as the proposition’s name claimed. Even those convinced that reduced penalties for these types of crimes are necessary would be hard-pressed to explain how simply reducing those penalties would make communities safer.

In reality, political officials, especially those who want criminal justice reform, know that most voters do not read beyond the proposition’s name. A voter sees that name and likely concludes, “I want safe neighborhoods and schools,” and votes yes, which is exactly what happened. If political leaders had called this proposition by its proper name, “The Crime Sentence Reduction Act,” it likely would have failed.

Two years later, buoyed by the success of Proposition 47 and the belief that a majority of Californians wanted reduced sentences for most crimes, political leaders sought voter approval for Proposition 57, “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act.” Approved by voters in 2016, this proposition provided for significantly earlier parole for any person convicted of a non-violent felony offense who was sentenced to prison.

Second, it allowed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which oversees management of the prison system, to grant any state prison inmate additional good behavior credits. There was no limitation on which inmates would be eligible for these credits nor by how much CDCR could increase them. This meant violent offenders could be released from prison much sooner.

Third, it required CDCR to adopt regulations that would protect and enhance public safety but did not clarify how exactly regulations enacted by this statute could be used to accomplish this.

Lastly, it made it much more difficult for prosecutors to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and it eliminated the practice entirely for juveniles under the age of 16 regardless of the crimes they committed. In summary, Proposition 57 made it easier for prisoners to be released much sooner, and it made it harder for prosecutors to file criminal charges against juveniles in adult court.

Again, no matter how one feels about these changes, how exactly does releasing inmates significantly earlier from prison and not prosecuting juveniles in adult court make the public safer? One only needs to review the most recent crime statistics to get that answer. Both the violent crime rate and the property crime rate have been steadily increasing in California and Ventura County since 2019. Thus, despite its misleading name, Proposition 57 had nothing to do with public safety or rehabilitation. However, political leaders knew if they had called this proposition by its proper name, “The Release Violent Prisoners Significantly Earlier Act,” it likely would not have passed.

Public trust has undoubtedly been a casualty of the erroneous labeling of these statutes. And because of this mislabeling, the passage of these two propositions has created a false narrative about Californians’ view of criminal justice in general, prompting political leaders to propose new acts at the legislative level that would eviscerate victims’ rights and put the public in danger.

The effect of some of these changes was seen recently. At the end of April, California announced with little notice that 76,000 inmates, many of whom were either violent or repeat offenders, would be released much earlier than expected. This sudden release of inmates was made possible by the passage of Proposition 57, “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act.” If political leaders had told voters in 2016 that the early release of violent and repeat offenders would result from the passage of this act, it likely would not have passed. Also, as demonstrated by this early release, Proposition 57 had nothing to do with public safety or rehabilitation.

Recently, in Ventura County, a 15-year-old was charged with two counts of murder — separate acts committed approximately one month apart. By definition, his actions make this juvenile a serial killer. Yet, because of Proposition 57, the juvenile cannot be charged in adult court and face the stiffer penalties often associated with multiple acts of murder. Instead, he was sentenced under juvenile law, which meant that the maximum penalty he would receive would be to remain in a juvenile facility until age 25. For the victims’ families, there was no justice, and there may never be.

As noted above, the violent and property crime rate has steadily increased since 2019. These increases could be traced directly back to the passage of Propositions 47 and 57, as punishment for property crimes has been drastically reduced, and violent offenders are released back into the public far sooner than they should be. Thus, despite claims of “public safety,” political leaders instead misled voters into voting for criminal statutes that have had the opposite effect. There is no sign these leaders will stop as they continue to propose changes to criminal law that only serve to help criminals and leave victims to fend for themselves.

Regardless of how one feels about these reforms, all citizens can agree that if the government has to mislead the public to secure such critical laws, there must be something wrong with the laws. All voters should be encouraged to take a more active role in learning about the changes that have been made in the area of criminal law and the changes being currently proposed. Public safety must be the priority, a fact many political leaders have chosen to ignore. It isn’t only crime victims and their families who pay the price when the voter is misled — all citizens do.

John Barrick has worked as a prosecutor in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office for more than 16 years, prosecuting some of the most violent crimes committed in the county. He currently serves in the Major Crimes-Homicide Unit. He is also a 2022 candidate for District Attorney.


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[…] Here is my article from the Conejo Guardian and the Citizen’s Journal: […]

William Hicks

You can blame California voters for laziness if they can’t make the effort to at leat read the narratives in the voters handbooks offered before elections.

Mike Smith

Lazy voters are the ones who ‘built’ the California of today.

But who will actually get the (majority) lazy voters to realize they are the reason so many people are having to escape the state?

William Hicks

Thanks Mike; good question.

This upcoming recall might just be the awakening of The Lazies. Some people just need a stick instead of a carrot to acknowledge their self inflicted pain, and Newsom has provided the stick for them; I HOPE. Pain is the ultimate teacher when serious working through the thought process is not used.

They are free to make choices, just not free of the consequences of their choices.

Susan Aquino

Yes, this is one of my pet peeves. There “oughta be a law” that ballot propositions be properly named.

William Hicks

That only is true if all you do is read the title. We do more than that when we read a menu.

C E Voigtsberger

I voted for the three strikes initiative and against both Prop 47 and 57. After twenty-five years of working in court watching criminals time and again parade through the system I realize that the only way to cut down on crime is to incarcerate the 10% that are responsible for 90% of the crime for the rest of their miserable lives.

At one time deputy public defenders in arguing for no bail release would cite the number of cases the client had pending in court and having made all his court appearances in numerous cases was entitled to own recognizance (no bail) release. And the judge had to consider that argument as grounds for OR release.

To unknowledgeable citizens, I used to tell them that if they went home that evening and found Joe Burglar putting the family video recorder (long time ago) in their pillow case, the very quickest, for a case moving with blinding speed through the court system, without one day’s continuance, the absolute minimum time before Joe would be sentenced would be 120 days.

I don’t believe that time has been shortened by any length of time and although I have no specifics to buttress my belief, I believe the absolute quickest time is now somewhat in excess of 120 days.

For the career criminal who is out on OR because he always makes his court appearances. he has forgotten what crime it is that he is being sentenced for. For the career criminal who either shop lifts or commits a car or business or residence burglary or all of the above, as a career, he works most days of the week just like Joe Citizen who goes to his job. One burglary blends into another.

I don’t call it a justice system any more. It is a bureaucratic system designed to make as much work as possible in order to keep growing the number of personnel employed therein.

Make use of drugs for personal use legal? No way. Do you realize the number of people in the court and law enforcement systems that would become excess personnel? It would shoot the unemployment rate through the ceiling. But not to worry. Should that millennium come to pass, the politicians will find some work for them doing something to impinge on your individual rights as a citizen.

I won’t even go into the death penalty in this post. The average person has no concept of the evilness that exists in the criminal world because they have never really had to sit and listen to the evidence of evilness hour after hour, day after day. Having your house trashed in a burglary and having the burglar move his bowels in the middle of your living room is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

William Hicks

How about some limits on plea bargaining? The only beneficiaries I see in it are quicky benefits for judges, lawyers and career criminals.

C E Voigtsberger

Mike Bradbury used to brag that his office didn’t plea bargain. It was a lawyer lie. They didn’t plea bargain on the main offense, but too many times the armed allegation was dismissed or prior felony convictions for sentence enhancing were dismissed in the furtherance of justice, meaning that with the dismissal the plea was acceptable.

There are all kinds of way to get around “NO PLEA BARGAINS”.

Even juries do it. I worked on a case where the defendant emptied a 1911 .45 semi-automatic magazine into his wife. The jury found him guilty of second degree murder but found that he wasn’t armed at the time of the offense. WHAT? How could he shoot her seven times and not be armed at the time of the offense? Is a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol not a deadly weapon? It surely killed his wife. The dumbfounded judge read the verdict to the jury and asked them if that was their verdict and they all agreed that it was. Courtroom protocol precludes a judge from upbraiding a jury for a really stupid verdict. Somebody on the jury apparently knew that use of a firearm in the commission of a crime resulted in a five year mandatory sentence before commencing eligibility for consideration for parole.

It is not always the DA’s fault, nor the judge’s fault but some ill-logical, almost demented thinking on the part of juries. The most horrendous miscarriage of justice I ever worked on was a really clean narcotics bust where the dealer was a wholesaler, not the average junkie selling drugs to support his habit. This guy didn’t use the stuff. It was one of the cleanest investigations I had seen. The criminalist told me during a recess that it was the purest heroin he had ever tested. He had it tested three times by three different people just to make sure he hadn’t screwed up the test. It was that pure. The jury didn’t like the informant and came back 11-1 for acquittal. I expected them to be out 20 minutes if there was a contested election for foreman. It was one of the rare times I saw a judge allow the DA to refile. Usually on an 11-1 for acquittal the judge would tell the DA he got lucky but not to waste the taxpayers’ money on a loser case. The case was settled for a plea to simple possession and the defendant walked out with no additional time other than time served awaiting trial. And, of course, he had to pay his privately retained attorney a considerable sum for working a miracle.

The jury didn’t like the snitch. Nobody likes the snitch. Even the snitch hates himself but it’s testify or face a long stretch in the joint. It was a good clean arrest of a major dealer in Ventura County, the kind of guy everyone is constantly trying to put away and the jury lets him basically walk because they didn’t like the informant. The personality of the informant had nothing to do with the facts of the case that were that the dealer who dealt in nothing smaller than one once quantities of very pure heroin got off on a very serious charge of dealing in large quantities of dangerously pure heroin. One ounce of 98% pure heroin is a large quantity of dangerously pure heroin. It is a wholesale quantity of heroin. And the jury of upstanding citizens didn’t like the snitch so a major dealer walked. It’s not always the enforcement personnel.