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Legislature aims to make crime pay with CA taxpayers footing the bill
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Dennis Wyatt

Here we go again.

The state Legislature sees a clearly unjust law — or set of laws — embedded in the California Constitution.

Think about laws that sent people to prison for three relatively minor offenses such as burglary as legally defined when it involved shoplifting.

Virtually everyone agrees it is a preposterous situation.

But a few people point out some potential pitfalls that could be remedied by inserting language into the ballot measure.

Instead of thoroughly vetting the ballot measure that everyone agrees will address a large swath of injustices and regulatory overreach they bless what they’ve slapped together, place it on the ballot and crank up the political sound bite machine focused 100 percent on the most egregious examples they can muster to garner in order to secure passage.

Chalk this up to a short attention span, lack of thoroughness, of being about as deep in the thinking-it-through department as water in a wading pool for ants.

We all know what happened after Proposition 47 decriminalized a lot of misdemeanors. The surge in shoplifting and gun violations led to today’s world where thieving mobs descend upon stores like locust and solo thugs nonchalantly walking into stores scooping merchandise into bags and walking out the door with little fear of police — if they do catch them — being able to do more than issue them a citation under the law.

The latest potential pitfall the California Legislature is going to ask an unsuspecting electorate to approve is the issue of “involuntary servitude.”

It is included as a protected form of punishment in the state Constitution.

It is clearly — and correctly — aimed at formally severing the remnants of slavery from the law.

The federal Constitution bans slavery; however, it allows involuntary servitude for the punishment of a crime. That is also the case with California’s Constitution as well as those of many other states.

But a movement to strip involuntary servitude exceptions has been gaining momentum across the country. Colorado was the first state to get rid of the exception in 2018.

The state Assembly last month approved a bill that would eliminate involuntary servitude in California for any reason. If the bill clears the state Senate before the end of June, it would be put on the statewide ballot this November for voters to decide.

It clearly is something that people could and should support.

But just like Proposition 47, the bill is a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t address a very real and serious side effect — the ability of state prisons to operate.

Slavery was outlawed nationwide in 1865.

However, states for decades used the constitutional exception for involuntary servitude to make money from their prison populations. States would lease inmates — mostly black men — to private companies for work. The state made money, but the inmates were not paid.

That «convict lease» system doesn’t exist anymore. In California, state courts don’t include labor as a condition of criminal sentencing. But California inmates are required to either work or participate in education or rehabilitative programs.

The potential the proposed ballot measure has for severe, unintended consequences, can be found in the requirement that inmates work and/or continue their education.

Jobs include things like clerks, painters and carpenters. Some inmates can apply for jobs that earn them industry-accredited certifications for things like meat cutting, coffee roasting and maintenance of healthcare facilities.

A legislative analysis of the proposed amendment notes inmate salaries range from a low of eight cents per hour to 37 cents per hour, or a minimum of $20 per month and a maximum of $56 per month. Compare that to California’s minimum wage is $15 per hour for companies with 26 or more employees.

You can see where this is going. If the ballot measure passes in its current form, inmates will sue to be paid minimum-wage. These are the same people who are not paying for their food, clothing, and housing costs that include the salaries and benefits of correctional officers.

A legislative analysis indicated as a constitutional amendment the bill could prompt lawsuits to force the state to pay inmates’ minimum-wage. That would cost taxpayers billions upon billions annually.

Lawmakers backing the bill see no issue if the law would make work voluntary for inmates and don’t believe it would impact how much they are paid.

The first point is debatable. As far of the second point, if that is the case why not insert language that clearly states passage of the measure would not impact how much inmates are paid for jobs they hold behind bars.

But is making “work” voluntary for inmates a good thing? And is not addressing how much they are paid in light of lifting the “involuntary servitude” language that has been used to justify inmates being forced to work and paid way below minimum-wage a wise thing given the courts, without proper wording, may end up ensure those in prison working jobs to learn skills or to feed and care for themselves and the rest of the prison population would earn as much as someone flipping burgers for $15?

And if they do, is there no morale outage that one of their victims may only be making $15 an hour that they may have assaulted, raped, or beaten within an inch of the life while they are being bars making $15 an hour while not paying a cent toward their room, board, and other costs related to their imprisonment.

Removing the ability to force anyone who is incarcerated to do work they choose not to do sounds good on the surface. But no one has formally asked the Department of Corrections – the people who have to watch over inmates and try to rehabilitate them — for one iota of input.

Not only does committing crime that has to clear a high threshold to get you locked up today in California assure you of three hot meals and a cot plus access to computers, TV, medical care including gender reassignment, and the ability to start a family behind bars among other things but being a convicted felon could soon have a bonus.

Crime can pay with California taxpayers footing the bill to cover the paycheck.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Courier or 209 Multimedia.