California's Proposition 8: voter rebellion against crime

Californians are taking the fight against crime to the ballot box.

Among the dozen or so propositions to be presented to voters here on June 8 is the so-called Victim's Bill of Rights. It is a multi-faceted crime package that proponents say will tip the scales of justice back to public safety and victims' rights.

To opponents, however, Propositon 8 is ''a document more politically appealing than legally sound,'' in the words of Yolo County District Attorney Rick Gilbert.

The measure is simply worded, but enormously complex. It cuts across the criminal justice spectrum - sloppily, say critics - proposing changes in everything from plea bargaining and restitution to the exclusionary rule and safety in the schools. For example:

* The exclusionary rule. Under a provision entitled ''right to truth-in-evidence,'' Proposition 8, if passed, would allow all relevant evidence--regardless of how it was gathered--to be introduced in court. Proponents say this clause is meant only to bring California's liberal exclusionary laws into conformity with narrower federal rulings.

But critics say not only does it defy federal rulings, it also abolishes the state's Evidence Code. The current code includes exclusionary rules stating that documents used as evidence must be authenticated and that rape victims do not need to give their addresses and telephone numbers in open court.

* Right to safe schools. Proposition 8 states that students and staff members of public schools have the ''inalienable right to attend campuses which are safe , secure, and peaceful.''

Supporters say the clause is intended to provide a legal underpinning for parents, students, and school employees to sue a school district if a campus is unsafe. Critics charge that the wording is too vague to be meaningful, and suggest that students involved in school fistfights could sue a school district for violation of their ''inalienable right'' to safety.

* Bail. Proposition 8 establishes public safety as the primary consideration in setting bail. It makes bail discretionary -- except in capital cases, where bail would be prohibited -- and requires judges to consider public safety first in deciding whether to grant bail.

Critics say this part of the proposition could violate an individual's constitutional presumption of innocence. And they warn that the financial burden of requiring bail hearings in all cases--even misdemeanors--could be staggering.

Proposition 8 landed on the ballot after 665,000 signatures were gathered as part of an initiative drive to bring the measure before voters. Advocates contend that the controversial proposal--which is expected to pass by a wide margin and which is sure to be challenged in court -- is the only way to correct what they say has been the state Legislature's indifference toward crime problems and liberal court attitudes toward the rights of defendants.

''This is the first big step toward doing something about the problem,'' says Robert McElreath, executive director of the Citizens Committee to Stop Crime. ''We're not being vindictive, we're not taking advantage of people's fears. . . . People are fed up. We're tired of being prisoners in our own homes.''

Opponents argue, however, that Prop 8 supporters are taking advantage of Californians' widespread fear and frustration over crime problems--and that the measure's title plays to that concern. What proponents don't say, they charge, is that the bill will cost taxpayers some $1 billion a year in increased court costs and backlogs, that it won't protect victims, that it hampers law enforcement, and that it is unconstitutional on several counts.

''This is indeed a reflection of public frustration,'' admits Ross Clark, consultant to the state Assembly Criminal Justice Committee. ''On the other hand , it's a cynical attempt to capitalize on that frustration by proposing something that sounds good, but won't do anything about the problem,'' he adds.

In addition, contends Yolo County District Attorney Gilbert, Prop 8 advocates play on the public's fear of crime without mentioning that California has experienced a drop in the increase of its crime rate. Last year, he notes, the state's overall increase in crime was 1.3 percent, compared with 14.3 percent the year before. Crimes against persons, he continues, actually dropped 0.8 percent. What is more, Gilbert and others point out, California's per capita incarceration rate is exceeded by only two jurisdictions in the world--South Africa and the Soviet Union.

The current debate is set against a year-old political tug of war that has found Republicans and Democrats trying to outdo each other in appearing as anticrime champions. State Republican leaders first unveiled the Victims' Bill of Rights last year, with the support of grass-roots crusader Paul Gann (co-author of California's legendary Proposition 13). The action was a warning to Democrats that if certain anticrime measures were not passed in the state Legislature, the initiative drive would be launched, a step they took last July.

Although the Democratic-controlled Legislature took action on some of the measures raised by Republicans--among them the ''diminished capacity'' insanity defense - Prop. 8 advocates say it was too little too late.

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