Social Justice at What Cost?
I always wondered why California had so many things to vote on. While watching the debates, arguing with friends or parents over a choice of candidate, or celebrating a win on Election Day had become more frequent over the years. I questioned whether other states have a 20+ page voter guide that accompanies their ballot each voting year cycle?
The first year I voted in California, I don’t think I even knew what all the tick boxes on the ballot meant. I would do what most people did. Read the question on the ballot while standing in some garage voting booth, without caring enough to bring along my voter’s guide to explain the issue at hand. A few years later, a civic-minded friend would email her recommended picks and I felt this was a more informed attempt at voting for the “right things.” Then there were the occasional years when friends would gather and discuss a handful of measures and propositions they were passionate about. I just listened and pretty much followed the general flow, rarely having much more to say than what had already been said.
This year, I invited my neighbors over for socially distant wine on the patio and we divided the propositions up for each to do their own research. I was proud of myself for suggesting such civic-minded voter participation in a year of such divisiveness. Besides, who doesn’t need an excuse to drink wine with friends during Quarantine. That was all before I opened my voter guide to see what was on the ballot this year.
As I read through the propositions, three drew my attention. California Propositions 17, 20, and 25. In previous years, these would have been easy voting decisions. I am a liberal, educated woman after-all. I believed in the values of equality and justice for all, and it was these tenements that had guided my past decisions. But this year was different. This year, I had a horse in the race and it wasn’t by choice.
I challenged myself to do the research. To read the text of the entire proposition. To read the dissenting points of view. To research the facts, and present them to my audience of friends and neighbors. But some of these measures dealt with the rights of criminals and prisoners. And I felt the raw wound of my attack reopen under my skin.
“Wobbler.” That was the term the DA used to explain the difference in sentencing domestic violence as a simple misdemeanor or a felony. And it can determine whether a person gets six months in a county jail or six months in a state prison. Even though they rarely served more than half their sentence due to prison overcrowding. It was designed to give the court more flexibility. But it is the DA, not the victim, that gets to choose which will be presented as the charge in court. As a victim you want and need the maximum penalty. But to the DA, you are nothing more than a witness. Your name is literally described on court documents as Jane Doe. And when you walk into your first meeting with the DA, his primary motivation is to get this case off his plate as fast and easily as he can, avoiding a costly trial if at all possible. So choosing the lesser punishment for this crime is the path of least resistance. And often that includes the decision of bail. This is the type of crime that was on the ballot this year as part of SB-10 changes to “bail”.
As the victim, it doesn’t matter if you still can’t sleep through the night. It doesn’t matter if you had to hire private security to protect you before they found him. It doesn’t matter that you lost eight months of your life, waiting for the sentence to be decided. It doesn’t matter that it took the better part of a year for you to release the breath you had been holding since the night he tried to strangle you. It doesn’t matter that he was free and living large in Oregon for two months while you fought to bring him to justice in California. After-all, he had convinced himself and his family that he was innocent. Once he was caught, if there had been no or a low bail set, his family would have hid him away, in the mountains and forests of Oregon. If there had been no bail set, the California police wouldn’t have been able to do a damn thing to hold him behind bars. If there had been no bail set, I would be sitting here today wondering what shadow he would pop out of to get his revenge, or eliminate the one person that could put him in prison.
A friend of mine recently had his home burglarized in Southern California. The criminal had broken into the vacant home, ransacked the house leaving it to look like an episode of Hoarders, and then charged other vagrants to take up occupancy until his crime was discovered two weeks later. They found the burglar and arrested him. But under COVID times, the police couldn’t hold him without bail, a temporary effort to reduce prison crowding and the spread of COVID. And so he went on to commit the crime again, and again, and again. The same criminal was charged five times in 48 hours because the police could not hold him on bail. He even tried to return to my friend’s property and was only stopped by private security guards, paid for by the victim.
Why is this important you may ask? Because one of these propositions, a new piece of state legislation — SB10, eliminates the bail system for California criminals. What does this mean for victims? It’s simple, if my attacker had been picked up and evaluated by a computer algorithm instead of a DA, he may have been set free. He’s white. He’s never had another felony. And he lies through his teeth. He is smart. He knows how to beat the system, he would have found a way to cheat a computer algorithm. The new algorithm is relatively untested and as it stands now, has little room for human intervention for either good or bad. Meanwhile, I, as the victim, would have been the one imprisoned in fear until a judge found him guilty eight long months later. My only saving grace was a high bail that kept him behind bars, serving time for a crime he had and would commit again and again.
That is the reality. From the time someone is picked up by the police, to the day they are sentenced can take months or years until a sentence is passed. And in those long months, the victim is left to relive their nightmares day in and day out, wondering if their demon will return to finish the job they had started. They have no bars to protect them.
I realize that the criminal justice system is broken. I realize that the bail program may benefit the rich vs. the poor. But let’s face it, the majority of criminals, white, black or brown, come from low income populations* where bails are set as a deterrent while the judicial system clears a mound of cases sitting on their desk. Yes — rich white people are more likely to get out of jail under this system. Yes — there are innocent people of every color that this system unfairly penalizes in the process. But unleashing the wide swath of violent criminals in an effort to protect the innocent few is not the solution. We must work harder to find the right way to improve our system to prevent this injustice from happening. But we still need to keep our victims safe. And SB-10 is not the answer.
I do believe in equal rights. I do believe we have a systemic race issue in our criminal justice system. But I also believe in victim’s rights. Rights that have been ignored for as long, if not longer, than racial rights in this country. So I ask you, who is it that you feel needs the protection more when a crime is committed? And if you are the one who gets attacked, would you want your attacker free to roam the streets for months before guilt was determined? Would you be able to sleep at night?
As I argued my position in front of my friends, I saw the sad reality of our times. They could not live in my skin. The greater good was more important than the plight of one. And race wars trump victim’s rights this year.
I have no doubt that SB-10 will pass. And two years from now, another proposition will be put on the ballot to correct the fervent attempt at achieving social justice. Reality would have set in and maybe, just maybe, victims’ voices will be heard at last.
For me personally, I have to find a way to accept my friend’s dissenting position without judgement. I have to find a way to give grace to my friends that can not understand or relate to what it’s like to be imprisoned in a state of fear. This is not the first time that friends and family could not understand domestic violence, or even subconsciously blame me for putting myself in such a position. Ironic isn’t it? To have so much attention focused on trying to understand and be empathetic for strangers that live in a skin we do not share. And yet, we can’t even be empathetic and supportive of those friends that stare across from us on a patio when checking a little box.
Yes — our vote matters at the ballot box. But sometimes, a vote matters more to a friend. Even if you have to pretend. What you don’t realize is that when you object to their experience, you are telling them subconsciously they don’t matter.
I think back to my earlier days of casually ticking the boxes behind an anonymous voting booth. I wish it didn’t take such personal experiences to make me care enough to research the propositions and measures. And I wonder how many people’s lives I impacted with such a cavalier approach to such privilege in our American lives. The right to vote and share our convictions through a democratic process is something we still take for granted. As flawed as the system is now, if people took the time to listen to others and educate themselves with the facts, we may be living in a different world than what we see ourselves struggling with today.
Meanwhile I go to sleep at night, dreaming not of a better future but one that revisits the past. It is the same nightmare I had for the two months while he ran free after the attack. The one where he comes back to finish the job. And I wonder how many other victims are dreaming the same nightmare as this bill passes, choosing the rights of their attacker over the protection of the innocent.