Proposition 6 would increase law enforcement spending, lengthen prison sentences

California voters face another get-tough-on-crime measure on next week's ballot. Proposition 6 would increase funding for law enforcement agencies and lengthen prison sentences for dozens of crimes. Supporters say it'll improve public safety. Opponents argue it's a draconian measure that promotes bad budgeting. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: The man behind Proposition 6 is Republican State Senator George Runner of Lancaster. He's been all over the state pitching it to anyone who'll listen.

Senator George Runner (in Orange County speech): We look at it as a comprehensive approach to dealing with crime in California. So let me just lay out...

Stoltze: Runner gave it an attractive title: the Safe Neighborhoods Act. More than anything else, he says, it would guarantee money for law enforcement programs the same way previous propositions have locked in funding for education.

Runner (in interview): We're going to the state of California voters and asking them if they want to prioritize some of their dollars – one percent of the state budget, total of just under a billion dollars – for these public safety programs. Is this where you would like to see your tax dollars spent?

Stoltze: The measure boosts funding for rehabilitation and juvenile programs, but the lions share goes to local sheriffs, prosecutors, and probation departments. Not surprisingly, most in law enforcement love Prop 6. The executive director of the California State Sheriffs' Association Jim Denny says more money is good, and guaranteed money with annual adjustments for inflation is even better.

Jim Denney: Law enforcement has to fight for this funding ever single year without the ability of knowing that this is going to be guaranteed from year to year. It makes it extremely difficult to count on this funding to sustain programs that are funded by this program.

Stoltze: Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley is one law enforcement official who begs to differ.

Steve Cooley: I really am becoming very dis-enamored with ballot box budgeting, where particular interest groups – even good interest groups like law enforcement – sort of want to corral their portion of the state budget and make it untouchable.

Stoltze: Cooley says this has contributed to the state's $10 billion budget deficit. The head of the largest local prosecutor's office in the state says he's also unimpressed with Prop 6's proposed increases in penalties for gang offenses, methamphetamine crimes, and car thefts.

Cooley: There are people who always want to go one step to the right – they want to be a little tougher than the next guy. So they come up with some of these schemes. And by and large, with very few exceptions, we have all the laws and penalty enhancements on the books we need to sentence criminals appropriately.

Stoltze: Senator Runner says he polled police and prosecutors throughout the state to come up with the penalty enhancements. The union that represents LAPD officers is on board with that.

Radio commercial: An urgent paid message from the Los Angeles Police Protective League: Proposition 6 is a comprehensive anti-gang and crime reduction measure that will bring more police officers and increased safety to our streets.

[Sound of Roman Catholic mass]

Stoltze: Mothers of incarcerated kids recently gathered for a Roman Catholic mass in opposition to Prop 6. The measure would allow more juveniles to be tried as adults.

Maria Tovares' 16-year-old son was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to eight years behind bars for hitting a security guard with a baseball bat. He'll go to adult prison when he turns 18.

Maria Tovares: Even at 18, he's a small kid, and he's going to be put in with adult prisoners? To me that's just not the thing to do. I would hate to have more kids than there already are in the adult system, that's what worries me.

Stoltze: Proposition 6 is the latest in a string of "tough on crime" ballot measures: the three strikes law, proposition 21 that targeted juveniles, and – another Senator Runner measure – "Jessica's Law" that increased penalties on sexual offenders. During a speech in Orange County, Runner dismissed concerns about legislating at the ballot box.

Runner: I will tell you today, the legislature today is incapable of doing comprehensive, sophisticated systems solutions. They are incapable. And that's why this, we decided to go to the ballot.

Stoltze: Opponents of Proposition 6 argue that voters are even less capable than lawmakers of making complex decisions about criminal justice – and that's one reason California faces chronic prison overcrowding that's contributing to a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.