Elizabeth Calvin, Human Rights Watch’s well-respected Children’s Right Advocate, says she’s worried.
When the bill finally was passed by the state assembly two weeks ago, supporters of the legislation figured that was pretty much the ball game. A done deal.
Sure, SB9 still had to go through a procedural vote in the state senate. But the senate had never been the problem. In the last three years, AB9 made it through the senate several times without a hitch, but then got stopped short when it hit the assembly, where otherwise sensible lawmakers got cold feet and sat out the vote, because of the loud protestations of victims’ rights groups and law enforcement unions, both of which are lobbying forces with piles of money to throw against a candidate who crosses them.
Then, finally, on August 16, the bill passed in the state assembly for the first time.
Juvenile justice advocates were ecstatic.
As predicted, it sailed through the senate the following week.
All that remained was for the governor to sign it, which surely Jerry would do. Right?
However, on Wednesday morning, a bunch of panicked emails from youth advocacy groups began to show up in my email box. The messages all urged supporters to call the governor and plead with him to sign the bill into law.
I figured this was just advocacy overkill, but wanted to make sure, so I called Human Rights Watch’s Elizabeth Calvin to ask her what was going on.
Calvin told me she thought the veto risk might be real.
“In my conversations with the governor’s staff,” Calvin said grimly, “they mentioned…..concerns.”
“Like what concerns?”
“Well,” she said, “Number one, Jerry’s worried that, with realignment just getting started, if he signs this, he’ll end up being known as the guy who let lots of criminals out of prison.”
“But…realignment doesn’t let anyone out of prison,” I sputtered. “Like, nobody. It lets zero people out early. All it does is to send certain low-ish level offenders to jail when they’re convicted, whereas before realignment, those same people would have served their time in state prison. In other words, the counties now lock ’em up instead of the state. Realignment also transfers some parolees to county oversight, but they don’t get out early or anything…”
“Look,” Calvin interrupted. “I know that and you know that, but it’s the….”
“...perception,” I said, my tone now as grim as hers.
“Right. It’s the perception.”
“They said it would be easier if we just brought the bill back a year from now…”
“You said that was number one of the governor’s concerns,” I said. “Is there a number two?”
“Number two is that the Sacramento-based victims rights groups are very vocal. And so are the law enforcement unions.”
“PORAC has told the governor that defeating this bill is their number one priority.”
PORAC—for those who don’t keep up on every law enforcement acronym, is the Peace Officers Research Organization of California. They’re a good organization that advocates for law enforcement. If you’re a politician, they’re very handy people to have backing you, and very unfun to have against you.
They backed Jerry, not Meg Whitman, for governor. One presumes he’d like to have their backing the next time around.
But does that require the veto of a bill that, when you get past the alarmist rhetoric, is just a very sensible and humane piece of legislation that corrects a matter that needs correcting, I suspect the governor knows all that. But will politics win out anyway?
“This is not good,” I said.
“No,” she said.
We’ll let you know more as we know more.
UPDATE: TALKING TO PORAC
I was not able to speak to PORAC’s president, Ron Cottingham, before I posted this story. However, Mr. Cottingham, who is also a member of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, did kindly call me back this morning and we had a wide-ranging chat about the ins and outs of the issue.
The bottom line is that PORAC is, indeed, strenuously opposing the bill.
The reasons he cited were much the same as the LAPPL—the LAPD union-–had listed, most of which I recognized as having come from the main victims’ rights lobbying group opposing the bill.
Yet I found Cottingham to be a bright, thoughtful person who, while appropriately protective of PORAC’s law enforcement membership, was also genuinely interested in the facts of the matter. He wanted, for example, to know how many of those convicted as juveniles would have been eligible for the death penalty for the crimes of which they were convicted. It was a question I couldn’t answer.
He also was under the impression that everyone given juvenile life had been through a thorough a complex vetting process before they were tried as adults. I told him that, no, after Prop. 21, DAs could “direct file,” meaning they could file on kids as adults without having to go through a juvenile court process known as a “fitness hearing.” Well, what percentage of the LWOP juveniles fell into that direct file category, Cottingham wanted to know. Were they the exception or the rule?
I had no definitive stat for that either.
I had enough information to be able to disabuse him of certain false notions he had about the bill, and he listened thoughtfully. On certain other parts of the topic, we agreed to disagree.
After I got off the phone, I realized the question I should have asked Mr. Cottingham: Had any of those who were advocating for the passage of SB9 called PORAC? Or was he just hearing from victims rights groups, who like many advocacy groups, tend to shave the dice on their facts and figures?
If the latter was true, why had none of the juvenile justice experts managed to sit down with the various law enforcement unions to explain why SB9 was not a threat to public safety, or a slap in the face to the work of cops?
Maybe PORAC, the LAPPL and others would still come out against bills like SB9, but maybe not. As I said, while Ron Cottingham would certainly always have a law-enforcement leaning, he was interested in more than knee-jerk positions. He was interested in facts.
I wondered why no one in the juvenile justice reform camp had thought to provide him with the detailed facts of the matter before now.
Photo from the Office of the Governor.