Baker for Assembly, Bauer-Kahan for Assembly

Republican Catharine Baker and Democratic Rebecca Bauer-Kahan compete for the 16th Assembly district representative seat.

Breaking misconceptions of criminal justice: Assembly candidates’ perspectives on reform

After the 2011 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata that the overcrowding in California prisons constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” there has been a decline in the state’s prison population. Unfortunately, as of April 2017, prison occupancy is still at 131.9 percent of maximum capacity. Even more worrisome, the recidivism rate, despite having dropped substantially, currently resides at 4.6 percent. All of these problems not only take a massive toll on our budget at $70,810 per prisoner but also reduce public safety.

It’s easy sometimes to dismiss prison conditions and the quality of life for those currently or formerly incarcerated. But it’s important to remember that those pushed to the side as “criminals” are often just people who made a wrong decision and possess the ability to change for the better given the opportunity. Some commit crimes such as theft because in their perspective, there is no other way to survive.

Even if we cannot sympathize with those who have committed crimes, the way the criminal justice system operates affects everyone, making it a concern to all. Eventually, many prisoners will be released, so the impact these individuals will have on society afterward affects all people through the economy and public safety.

Despite public opinion shifting more to the side of reform and rehabilitation, rather than retribution, divisions among politicians still exist. And when the wrong policies are passed, everyone suffers.

With that in mind, as talk of the 2018 midterm elections grows, we must not overlook our local elections. As part of the 16th District, which encompasses Alamo, Danville, Dublin, Lafayette, Livermore, Moraga, Orinda, Pleasanton, Walnut Creek and San Ramon, it is imperative to remember to vote this November because of predictions of a close race.

The incumbent Assemblymember Catharine Baker is running for her third term. As a Republican, it’s remarkable that Baker has managed to win the district twice before, considering that she is the only Republican to represent any part of the Bay Area at the state or federal level.

Baker’s opponent this year is Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a first-time political candidate but long time Bay Area native. She is seeking to be the first Democrat to hold the office since 2014.

Both Baker and Bauer-Kahan listed the criminal justice system as an important issue that they would tackle if they were elected. But their viewpoints differ significantly.

For Bauer-Kahan, reforming the criminal justice system is a must. As someone who has worked in the criminal justice system as an attorney, she was familiar with the stigmas that surround those who are incarcerated.

“Part of what happens when people get out of jail is, all of a sudden, now you have this record. It’s harder to get a job,” Bauer-Kahan said.

She mentioned some of the ways that she has combated laws and provisions that she didn’t see as productive and that actually contributed to stigma. Specifically, she worked with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in order to defend homeless individuals that were cited with quality of life violations for living on the streets.

“I worked on decriminalizing homelessness in San Francisco because they were doing this crazy thing where they would give them citations for sleeping on the street. So then, [the homeless person] wouldn’t be able to pay any money and it would turn into a warrant, and all of a sudden, they were not eligible for housing rights. You put people in this cycle of ‘What are you going to do?’ and you have to break that cycle,” Bauer-Kahan explained.

She furthered that longer sentences didn’t deter crime either, and numerous studies corroborated her views with one such example being from Francis T. Cullen of the University of Cincinnati, titled “Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism: The High Cost of Ignoring Science.” He concludes that “there is little evidence that prisons reduce recidivism and at least some evidence to suggest they have [an effect that likely causes criminal behavior].”

Baker, however, saw the issue differently. In her eyes, California has become too lax on crime, endangering the community. She mentioned Proposition 47 as one of the main causes of a “crime spike” in California.

“There has been a real effort in the past few years in Sacramento to reduce penalties for crimes…And we’re seeing the impact in a dramatic increase in property crimes and some violent crimes in California, including our community. And there’s this misconception that lowering penalties for crime makes us safer,” she said.

Unfortunately for Baker, the “crime spike” is not as dramatic as portrayed.

Sal Rodriguez of the Orange County Register states, “The year Prop 47 was passed, 2014, happened to be the year in which the property crime rate hit the lowest ever recorded by the state. Consequently, the increase from 2014 to 2016 turned out to be a case in which California’s property crime rate rose from the lowest on record to the second-lowest on record. The sky isn’t falling.”

And a report from the University of California, Irvine corroborates this by adding that in the research they conducted on the proposition, “Proposition 47 is not responsible for increases in homicide, rape, aggravated assault or robbery.”

More importantly, loosening penalties does, in fact, increase the safety of the community which Cullen’s study also corroborates. When people commit crimes and then are imprisoned for long periods of time, their lives are thrown into disarray. After leaving prison, it becomes harder for those formerly incarcerated to become productive members of society again.

Baker emphasized the interests of “victims” as one of her main approaches to the criminal justice system, with language most closely associated with retributive justice, a system of criminal justice based on the punishment of offenders based on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. Everyone believes that justice is inherently good by its own definition, but we have a perplexing tendency to believe anything associated with justice is also good. Retributive justice may be emotionally appealing, but it’s not an acceptable approach to public policy. Governments don’t have the resources to help everyone in society and therefore, inevitably face tradeoffs. Allowing emotion to cloud decision making hinders action that truly benefits citizens.

It was promising that Baker and Bauer-Kahan both agreed that reentry programs and allowing prisoners to receive an education while in prison were valuable. Baker also stressed “addressing the underlying causes of crime,” rather than reducing penalties for inmates. But while it is true that combatting the root cause is important, exclusive focus on it does nothing to fix the material conditions of people affected right now.

With Assembly results coming out soon, it becomes increasingly important to free ourselves from closed mindsets and break the chains of outdated public policy that keep society from progressing.

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