A version of this article originally appeared on the Justice Fellowship website.
“I agree with you; I want to do it; now make me do it.”
So President Franklin Roosevelt is believed to have replied when labor leaders asked him for executive action.
His response illustrates an important truth about American government: politicians are inherently responsive to public opinion. This reality prompts us to exercise our powerful influence in our communities, states, and nation, motivating and equipping our government leaders to be agents of positive change.
With Proposition 47, the people of California are doing just that.
Proposition 47 is a citizen-led initiative on the ballot this November that would move the California justice system forward by re-classifying many non-violent felonies to misdemeanors. It also would permit re-sentencing. The full description of the initiative is available here. The changes proposed by Proposition 47 give hope to thousands of Californians whose felony records haunt them long after they have served their sentences―records which make it extremely difficult to pursue an education, locate housing, and find a job.
It’s not only what Proposition 47 does, though, that makes it laudable. It represents the possibility of a sea-change in how elected officials view justice issues. For decades, the “soft on crime” vs. “tough on crime” debates have failed to serve the cause of justice by oversimplifying and ultimately mischaracterizing the issue.
The fact that Proposition 47 is even being debated indicates a major shift in public opinion. If it passes, and opinion polls indicate it will, the citizens of California will be taking the mandate of leadership, insisting that their elected officials take action, rather than spout platitudes. They will be saying to their leaders, “It’s time for a change in how we treat people in the criminal justice system. We care about public safety, and we also believe prison should be about restoring and transforming people’s lives.”
Prison Fellowship, through our Justice Fellowship program, advocates for a restorative justice framework that is rooted in transcendent biblical values. Proposition 47 upholds the biblical principle of caring for the “least” among us, because we are all made in God’s image. Restorative justice holds individuals accountable while recognizing the fundamental dignity of all human life—the life of the crime victim, the lives of the men and women who have been convicted of crimes, and the lives of those in our communities affected by crime. But what the justice system is currently doing simply isn’t working. It’s not working for victims, families, prisoners, communities, or taxpayers.
We applaud Californians for pursuing a more restorative justice environment as they consider Proposition 47.
Echoing former Justice Fellowship president Pat Nolan, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., businessman and founder of Serving California, say in their recent opinion piece, “Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.”
Currently, California spends $63,396 per prisoner and only $9,200 per student in the K-12 public education system each year. The state now incarcerates five times as many citizens as it did 50 years ago, and the crime rate is still the same! With a recidivism rate stubbornly high at 60 percent, shouldn’t the citizens of the state be demanding a better approach?
A diverse range of interests throughout California are participating in the debate around the justice reforms in Proposition 47, and we salute them for pushing the political leaders of the state and nation to listen and act. We look forward to the results of the election as Californians decide for themselves how to best manage their system of justice.