Whereas the traditional legislative process is a dialogue, a ballot initiative is more of a monologue. California’s easiest-in-the-nation rules make it possible to pass an initiative without substantive discussion or broad consensus, as long as the proponent has the money to qualify one.
Largely absent from the initiative process is the chance for opponents, experts, the public and the media to express their thoughts to the drafters and seek amendments. Once an initiative qualifies for the ballot, there are no opportunities to change it, even if someone identifies a serious shortcoming. In theory, the electorate can vote “no” — if we notice an error. But once an initiative passes — if errors have gone unnoticed — the Legislature is generally powerless to fix them. Since deficiencies often manifest years later, this has produced misshapen policies for California.
2014’s Proposition 47, which mandated that prosecutors could no longer charge certain crimes as felonies, provides the clearest example of this style of poor policymaking. There are at least four problematic ramifications of Prop. 47, some which were foreseeable before passage, and some which were not. Shame on those who promoted it, despite those uncertainties. And shame on policymakers for not fixing the deficiencies, now that they are so clear.
First, because our overburdened criminal-justice system rarely requires those convicted of misdemeanors to serve any time, Prop. 47 hasn’t really reduced the punishments for these crimes, as much as it has eliminated them. Word of this has spread, and criminals act accordingly. Stores report shoplifters meticulously calculating the value of goods to pilfer, so as to come just under the threshold to qualify for Prop. 47 leniency. And in the rare instances when a shoplifter is arrested, they are often right back at the same store the next day.
Second, Prop. 47 has profoundly affected our state’s DNA database, used to solve the most serious crimes, like rape and…