Monday, October 29, 2012

YES on 34: The Death Penalty Is Not Effective

Regardless of whether you believe that the hardest core criminals should be killed, or whether you believe that the death penalty is immoral, we should all agree that the death penalty as it exists today is not serving its intended purpose. Because the death penalty entails a lengthy appeals procedure, very few inmates sentenced to death are ever killed. Since 1978 when the death penalty was reinstated in California, only 13 inmates have been executed. Many more have died of old age. While some death penalty supporters argue that we could just speed up the appeals process, that is simply not realistic in this day and age, where advanced forensic evidence such as DNA testing has proved that innocent people have been sentenced to death. It is simply not acceptable to our society that we should allow innocent people to be put to death mistakenly, so great care is taken to prevent that (and even still the record is imperfect). Given the realities of the present situation, one can hardly argue that the modern death penalty has any special deterrent effect beyond a life sentence.

At the same time, the cost of maintaining a "death row" has been estimated at over $4 billion since 1978. Death row inmates are specially segregated, and require special handling and extra guards. Ironically, even though the law provides for criminals to work in prison and have their wages garnished toward repaying their victims, death row inmates are often exempted from working because of the special handling required (extra guards, not allowed to mix in the yard with other prisoners, etc).

Prop 34 would replace the death penalty with a life sentence with no possibility of parole. This would eliminate the need for the special "death row" protocols, saving the state upwards of $100 million each year. The most heinous criminals could then be forced to work, and to pay back debts to their victims. The law would never allow them to be released. The commercials claiming that this proposition would let dangerous criminals out are just plain lying, and the ballot pamphlet argument against this prop is completely disingenuous on this point. If you read the actual proposition text yourself, it is quite clear that the death penalty is replaced with "imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole". Moreover, explicit language is added to require that the prisoners work and to have their wages garnished to repay any debts.

It is noteworthy that a number of conservative, tough-on-crime former supporters of the death penalty have endorsed Prop 34. These include Donald Heller, author of the 1978 proposition that reinstated the death penalty, Ronald Briggs who worked with his father to spearhead the 1978 campaign, and Jeanne Woodford, a former chief warden at San Quentin, who supervised four executions. If these death penalty proponents realize that the death penalty is not working, it is definitely time for change. For all these reasons, I urge a YES on 34 vote.

Friday, October 12, 2012

YES on 40: A No-Brainer to Support Citizens' Redistricting

Some of the propositions require wading through lots of argument for and against, but not Prop 40. You may recall that over the last several years, California has instituted a citizens redistricting commission to draw the political district boundaries that for years had been egregiously gerrymandered by both parties. (Seriously, look up gerrymander in Wikipedia, and you'll see a picture of California's 2008 State Senate districts.) The first citizen's commission completed their work in 2011, and the new more fairly and rationally drawn districts were in place for the June 2012 elections. Alas, several incumbents were unhappy about the new districts, and they placed this referendum on the ballot and sued in court, in the hopes of getting the districts tossed out for the 2012 elections. These politicos were righteously smacked down by the California Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion that noted that not only do the new districts appear to comply with all of the constitutionally mandated criteria, but they were arrived at through an "open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process", as was the intention of the California voters in establishing the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Having lost in court, the proponents of this referendum are no longer even supporting their own referendum. If you look in the voter information guide, the argument against Prop 40 is just a short statement from the people who put it on the ballot saying essentially "we give up". (Yes, it's a bit confusing, but the people who put the referendum on the ballot wanted a "no" vote.) So the obvious thing to do is to vote YES on 40, and show your support for California's open, transparent, and nonpartisan redistricting process.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Prop 37 is a Bad Idea

I know a lot of folks have strong feelings about genetically engineered foods, but regardless of whether you think GMO foods are evil or are perfectly safe, there are plenty of good reasons to vote NO on Prop 37.

First, I begin with a presumption that making law by initiative is generally a bad idea. The initiative was created as a failsafe mechanism for the electorate to guard against a corrupted legislature, and should only be used when absolutely necessary. It is a very poor way to make legislation in general, particularly legislation that is complex and gets down to the details of regulations, such as what exactly has to be labeled, what the labels have to say, and what the exceptions are. Detailed legislation like that is often imperfect and later needs to be corrected. The State Legislature can amend the laws that it passes, but initiative statutes can only be amended by another initiative. Even in the "pro" and "con" arguments for this proposition, both sides point to details and exceptions. This is the sort of legislation that is likely to be flawed and to want amending, making it a bad candidate for an initiative statute.

Second, this sort of food labeling regulation is not something that should be undertaken at the state level. We currently have federal regulations from the USDA defining similar issues such as "organic" labeling and "milk from cows not treated with rBST/rBGH". The federal regulations concerning milk provide a framework giving some latitude for variation within states, which is viable for milk because milk is generally an intrastate business. For produce and even more so for commodity crops like corn and soybeans, which become ingredients in many processed foods, the interstate and international commerce is substantial. Imposing a California-only regulation on this interstate and international supply chain would create a complication for all California food producers and for global food producers who wish to sell in California, which ultimately means added cost for the consumer. It only gets worse if other states decide to get into the act. That is exactly why such things need to be consistently regulated at the federal level, as has been successfully and effectively done for organic food and growth hormone-treated dairy cows. Moreover, it is probable that the USDA will eventually provide regulatory guidelines for non-GMO foods that will preempt California's initiative, meaning that everyone in the agricultural supply chain from farmer to grocer will have been jerked around by California's initiative.

Finally, the approach proposed in Prop 37 fails to follow the successful and effective path already established by USDA "organic" and milk labeling regulations. In the case of foods labeled "organic", the USDA regulations standardize the criteria that must be met in order for a food to be labeled "organic". Note that this is a voluntary positive claim. Food producers who believe that consumers will find value in meeting "organic" standards can choose to meet those standards and put the label "organic" on their product. Products that do not meet the standards are prohibited from claiming to be "organic", but they are not required to put any adverse "non-organic" label. Under this voluntary "make the claim only if you can meet the standards" regulation, the organic food industry has thrived. As of 2010, U.S. sales of organic food and beverages were a $26.7 billion business, and represented over 11% of all fruit and vegetable sales. This approach has given the consumer good choices in the marketplace, and the ability to make their own choices about the value of "organic" food, which tends to command a higher price. A similar approach was taken with the growth hormone issue in dairy cows, where dairies were allowed to market under a standardized label stating "milk from cows not treated with rBST/rBGH" if they met the criteria, but were not required to put any adverse "contains rBST/rBGH" if they didn't meet the criteria. Here again, this approach enabled choice for the consumer and the development of a substantial niche market for those willing to pay a higher price for milk from untreated cows. Rather than taking this proven pro-consumer and pro-market approach, Prop 37 imposes a negative involuntary regime where all food producers who do not meet the criteria are required to put an adverse "contains GMO" label on their products. Unlike the voluntary USDA approach that allows food producers to decide if and when they wish to make a claim that some consumers may find valuable, the Prop 37 approach imposes its regime on all producers, which is likely to trigger supply chain disruption and higher prices as food producers scramble to meet the new California-specific requirements. (Not unlike California's specific requirements on gasoline, and we've seen lately how that can disrupt a supply chain and affect prices.) When we've already seen how well a voluntary claim system can work, it would be foolish to take Prop 37's negative involuntary approach risking adverse affects on farmers, grocers, and consumers alike.

Thus, regardless of how you feel about GMO foods, I hope you will agree that Prop 37 is a bad idea.