From Three-Strikes to Prison Reform: Organizing Wins

On Tuesday, two decades after 71% of Californians voted to pass the Three-Strikes initiative Prop 184, California passed a sweeping criminal justice reform that will stem the build-up of California’s overcrowded and broken prison system, and begin to repair the damage to thousands of families torn apart by repressive sentencing laws. Prop 47 passed with 58% of the vote, reducing six non-violent, low level crimes to misdemeanors, and redirecting hundreds of millions of dollars annually from prisons to prevention programs, education and victim services.

For weeks leading up to the election, California Calls Action Fund and PICO California Action Fund joined forces to fuel a large scale ground game to increase voter turnout for Prop 47. Together we mobilized 8,000 grassroots leaders who contacted over 300,000 new and infrequent voters in 14 counties of the state, and identified 250,000 “yes” votes for Prop 47.  And in the last four days, the coordinated effort re-contacted 40,000 supporters from San Diego to Sacramento to motivate them to the polls.

This shift in criminal justice policy didn’t just happen accidentally or overnight. California Calls has been laying the foundation for this victory for years, organizing to expand the electorate by targeting young people, new citizens, and people of color who are typically overlooked by electoral campaigns.  Since 2009, California Calls has contacted 800,000 new and infrequent voters during and in between elections, identified 580,000 voters who agree with our vision for California, and have consistently increased turnout at the polls of these voters by 8-15%.

And the organizing is paying off.  When Three Strikes first passed in 1994, only 22% of California’s electorate was African American, Latino and Asian Pacific American voters.  According to exit polls, people of color made up 37% of the electorate in California on Tuesday, compared to 25% nationally.

Our communities vote when there are issues on the ballot that affect them directly, and when we build trust in the democratic process through face to face, personal contact. Nearly 50,000 people in California will be given a second chance to rebuild their lives after making a small mistake.  That’s why we saw such enthusiasm when we recruited volunteers for Prop 47 and talked to voters at their doors.

Our member organizations also powered a number of local victories on Tuesday. Oakland Rising and San Francisco Rising mobilized voter turnout which contributed to the success for local minimum wage increases in Oakland and San Francisco.  APEN and ACCE’s grassroots outreach to infrequent voters helped them turn out to the polls where they triumphed over the deep pockets of Chevron for control of Richmond.  Our communities also suffered some set-backs – Measure G, an attempt to curb skyrocketing housing costs in San Francisco failed, and the fracking ban Measure P failed in Santa Barbara. Republican victories in the State Senate and Assembly blocked Democrats from maintaining the 2/3 legislative majority, which will make our work to continue to restore the billions of cuts to education and critical services more challenging.

When we organize, we win.  As the electorate continues to expand, California will see demand for more policies that work for all Californians — policies that reinvest in education and our state’s future, raise critically needed funds by closing corporate tax loopholes, and restore democracy. By 2016, California Calls plans to mobilize 1 million new and infrequent voters and win our next battle to restore funding in California’s people and future.

California is on the right path, but there is more work to be done to permanently expand the electorate, and continue winning bold victories that transform the conditions of our communities. We’re in it for the long-haul.