People's Voices on Prop 57

On September 1, 2017, I attended a public hearing in Sacramento on Prop 57.  Over a hundred people from across California commented on how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) should revise its suggested “Regulations” on Prop 57.  

Approved by 64 percent of the state’s voters in November, 2016, Prop 57 allows parole consideration for people who are serving time for a nonviolent felony when they complete prison terms for their primary offenses. It authorizes CDCR to expand sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior, and education.

In July of this year, CDCR drafted its ideas in “Regular Regulations” about how parole consideration and credit expansion should be applied.  Within 45 days of the Regulations’ release, the public had a right to make comments—written and oral—on the draft.  September’s hearing was a part of this process.  

An overwhelming number of people who spoke at the hearing had been directly impacted by the California prison system. Many had been in prison for years or decades and gave powerful speeches from their own experiences regarding why CDCR’s suggested regulations would unfairly leave out some people. A man who was only sixteen when he was sent to prison and just released several weeks ago, convincingly explained the problem of not applying credit earnings retroactively:

Let’s say, there are two inmates: one already attended many rehabilitation programs and received educational degrees because he decided during his early period in prison that he would turn his life around; the other did not take any action on these matters and waited for years. According to CDCR’s suggested Regulations, the second person has a chance to take educational degrees from now on, get credits for that, and have an opportunity to get early parole hearing. But, by not applying retroactive credits, it will not give any benefits to those who have already gotten degrees and thus cannot take any more educational courses. How could this be fair, especially when considering that these people have been helping out other inmates and thus changing other people’s lives? Why not apply the credit system retroactively?

Many family members of people who were currently incarcerated spoke and pointed out that by excluding “three strikers” and “lifers” whose crimes were nonviolent from getting a chance to have an early parole opportunity, the regulations were not in line with  the intentions of the voters who approved the law.  They reminded CDCR of the fact that Prop 57 contained no words that the law would discriminate against those who were convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Another discriminatory aspect of the CDCR’s Regulations was mentioned by those who were infuriated by its idea that people in prison would be given different amounts of credits based on their criminal conviction, even though they would take the same program. Again, nowhere in Prop 57 indicated that the law would be unfairly applied. Moreover, they argued that this kind of discrimination would not only prevent the law from being an incentive for people with longer sentences to seek out programs for rehabilitation, but it would also take away their hope.  

Activists from several community organizations that authored the law, gathered thousands of signatures to place it on the ballot, and mobilized millions of Californians to vote for the measure, admonished CDCR to rework the Regulations so that it would genuinely carry out the intention of the voters. One of them stated,

We are offended to have to stand here to ask you (CDCR) over and over again, after WE worked so hard to pass the law. We DEMAND that you implement what we already passed and in the way that we intended!

Listening to the people’s voices for over three hours taught me many aspects about programs and credits in prison—aspects that we need to know to understand the true meaning of Prop 57 and why CDCR’s Regulations were a limited and unfair plan.  

The people who were willing to use their knowledge accumulated from their experiences to advance justice made me feel empowered. To be sure, I understood that Prop 57 would not change the system fundamentally. It would not even guarantee people would be released early, but it would merely give people the opportunity for early parole. I also learned that rehabilitation and self-help programs were not equally provided among various prisons. For example, much fewer programs were provided in women’s prisons than in men’s prisons. This means that women in prison would be disadvantaged in terms of increasing their chances for early parole.  

Not the law but rather the people who were willing to use their knowledge accumulated from their experiences to advance justice made me feel empowered. It was the people who showed compassion to heal past wounds together, rather than focusing on punishment. It is the people, not CDCR, who have the ultimate power to enact and implement the law.  

Within a certain period, CDCR has to respond to every written comment from the public and revise the regulations. Hopefully, CDCR representatives will listen to the people’s voices carefully and reflect their intentions in its future regulations.   

Sunny Lim is an active member of the Ella Baker Center. Learn more about how you can get involved with our membership here