Coachella, Calif. — Allex Luna, a community organizer for Inland Congregations United for Change, has worked with local youth and families for several years. A Coachella Valley native, Luna’s desire for people in the eastern Coachella Valley is to live, “dignified lives.”
This is why he’s been following Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, since the initiative was put before the Attorney General of California’s office in February 2014.
Proposition 47 is a California ballot measure that, if approved by voters on November 4, will reclassify six non-violent felonies, including petty theft and drug possession, as misdemeanors. The reclassification would reduce sentences and would be applied retroactively, resulting in early releases for tens of thousands of prisoners. Money saved by the state from reduced prison costs would be spent on drug and mental health treatment services, education programs for at-risk youth, and crime victim services.
Proposition 47 is getting some of its strongest support from ethnic voters according to a field poll published on October 31, 2014. And 51% of voters statewide are polled as voting “Yes,” on the initiative.
Coachella Unincoporated’s youth media coordinator, Amber Amaya, sat down with Luna to ask him why he believes Proposition 47 would have a positive impact on the eastern Coachella Valley.
How did you get involved in advocating for Proposition 47?
“We’ve been looking into Prop 47 for quite a bit of time. ICUC (Inland Congregations United for Change) has been working on a school-to-prison pipeline campaign, and we’ve been looking at school discipline. Why we transitioned into getting involved with not just prop 47, but civic engagement as a whole, is because in order to build power of accountability and really transform our community, people need to go out and vote. But also we look at the communities who are statistically going to be able to vote, and we see their living conditions don’t match the reality of other communities who aren’t able to go out and vote. Palm Desert and la Quinta for example, who are voting at high rates, don’t match the reality of the east valley.
So we’ve been looking at civic engagement, but the way prop 47 tied in with us is because a lot of our families are impacted. Especially looking at basic humanitarian services, mental health and drug treatment programs, which is very low funded out here in the eastern Coachella Valley, or in the state in general. And seeing the possibility of truancy prevention, which prop 47 is going to bring money into. In our district, we see our district has a high truancy rate and a high drop out rate.”
How do you explain what Proposition 47 is to voters?
“There are two types of voters. There are the ones who are going to vote in a non-general election, who are always educated. And then there are the infrequent voters. So we’ve been targeting the infrequent voters to get them educated and get them to go out and vote. We are talking to people who are hearing about prop 47 for the first time.
In the time frame when you’re talking to a voter, you only have a minute and a half. That’s the expectation we set; we don’t want to be on the phone too long. So a lot of it is just being blunt and to the point.
I would ask someone, ‘Do you know how your tax dollars are being spent? In the last 20 years, we have built 22 prisons to one university. It shows that we are investing into a student’s and a person’s demise rather than their education, and also community healing as well.’
We’ve seen a real lack of education on how people’s money is really being spent. 22 prisons to one university clearly says where our priorities are.”
What kind of reactions have you been getting from the people you talk to over the phone or in person?
“The people we talk to say it’s frustrating and annoying that their money is getting invested in those things. A lot of families are concerned, especially hearing their tax dollars are going into building prisons. They thought their money was going into protecting or providing basic services, when it’s not.
We see the distrust that is happening. But people are forgetting the power of the electoral process. So we make the invitation to go out vote on prop 47, and we tell them why.
Folks say ‘Yes,’ they will vote on prop 47, and we’ve met people who are rejoicing because their family member could get their records back.
And that’s why from November 1 to November 4, we doing ‘Get Out the Vote.’ Anyone we talked to who said, ‘Yes,’ they are going to vote, we create accountability to make sure they are going out and voting for our future and our community.”
What are opponents of the initiative saying?
“We hear opposition saying that we are going to be releasing all criminals, or we are going to be letting everybody loose. That’s a fear tactic. We are seeing a lot of our brothers and sisters being incarcerated for these nonviolent offenses are people of color. It’s making sure we are investing in services that are getting these people back on the streets as high-functioning citizens.
A lot folks are concerned when they hear non-violent offenses are being switched from a felony to a misdemeanor. But that is why we really need to educate people. There’s this misconception that we are letting out everybody, and we need to look at that because people are going to be able to be eligible for parole, but that’s after an extensive review.”
Why do you think Proposition 47 is important for the eastern Coachella Valley?
“I think the two most important parts of prop 47 for the eastern Coachella Valley are the reclassification of felonies, which includes petty theft of under $950 and the possession on narcotics under a gram. There are about 10,000 people who are incarcerated for these nonviolent offenses. It just is about how do we want to invest our tax dollars? I want to invest my tax dollars into incarcerating the most violent criminals instead of folks who are being incarcerated for these nonviolent crimes.
And the second part is how the money is being reallocated from a person, who is formerly incarcerated. It costs 62,300 to incarcerate someone, even for a nonviolent offense. So that money would be put into the Safe Neighborhoods, Safe Schools fund, which would allocate funding for mental health and drug treatment programs, which have been cut throughout the entire state. It is also going to be for dropout prevention and victim services.
So it’s really reinvesting back into the services that our community really needs. We want to stop investing behind the crime; we want to get a head of the curve, and start preventing people at an early age.
But what is really going to be at stake for us, if this doesn’t pass, is that we’re saying it’s OK that we invest more money into expanding prisons, that it’s OK that we are investing into people’s destruction instead of people’s future. I think right now 257 million dollars are going into expanding the Indio jail. That money could have gone into bringing restorative justice programs into our community to prevent students who are at risk from entering those kinds of systems. We could have done so much more with that money instead of investing into a jail expansion. Are we investing in the future or investing in the demise? That’s really what is at stake.”