Los Angeles Times: "War on drugs: The 'wobbler' option"
Simple possession of small amounts of methamphetamine — enough for personal use but presumably not for dealing — is a "wobbler" in California, meaning that offenses can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors. It's different with possession of cocaine, opiates such as heroin and many other addictive drugs; they currently can be charged only as felonies.
The state Senate has now passed a bill to bring criminal handling of those drugs into line with methamphetamine, and the measure is before the Assembly. SB 649, by Democrat Mark Leno of San Francisco, is good policy and should be adopted.
The bill is an improvement over a version Leno offered last year to convert possession to a misdemeanor, with no felony option.
True, there is something perverse about locking people up for any period for possessing highly addictive drugs for their own use. Most offenders have the stuff on hand because they are hooked. For years California sent such addicts to prison, where little or no treatment was available. They were released on parole, which they were practically fated to violate by using drugs again — because they were, after all, addicted.
This foolhardy approach gave California a steady supply of unrecovered addicts shuttling between prison and the streets. That meant continuing damage to neighborhoods dealing with the addicted, plus overcrowded prisons. At the end of last year, for example, there were more than 4,000 inmates in state prison for possessing drugs for personal use.
It would be better to divert addicts from the criminal justice system entirely if they could be successfully treated without ever going to jail or even to court. But for many addicts, there remains a role for punishment, or at least the threat of punishment. Addiction may be a disease, but the afflicted include families, neighborhoods and, ultimately, all of society, and they all have a stake in successful rehab. When the carrot of a clean life is insufficient to keep an addict in recovery, the stick — the prospect of a criminal sentence — remains there for backup.
Some argue that these drugs ought to be decriminalized altogether, as California has done with marijuana. Simple possession of cannabis for personal use is now not even a misdemeanor here but a traffic-ticket-like infraction, punishable by a fine.
The key distinction, though, is the addictive nature of cocaine, heroin and the other drugs covered by current felony laws. Addiction affects the user's behavior — and thus imposes its damage on society and not just on the user — well past the period of intoxication. There is room for a conversation about whether decriminalization is nevertheless a more rational approach for addictive drugs, but it's not the conversation, or the bill, at hand. Either SB 649 is a smart reform, or it's a good first step in a more far-reaching sentencing revamp. Either way, it's better than the status quo....
If the last three decades of criminal justice policy have taught California anything, it's that there can be no autopilot when it comes to sentencing. There must be constant vigilance — and in the modern era, that means arrest and sentencing data must be collected and available for public scrutiny. It should fall to the state attorney general to pick through those numbers, see to it that wobbler charges are not unfairly targeting any particular group and flag problems when laws need to be adjusted to ensure equal justice.
Orange County Register: "Legislative dancing in the dark"
California's legislators and governor continue to behave in ways that could make somebody think that they see the state's public-records and open-meetings laws as obstacles that get in their way of getting things done. Fresh disrespect for openness was shown June 3 as the Senate approved Assembly Bill 246 - adding the governor to a growing list of public officials who may consult with local officials behind closed doors on matters that should be debated in public.
The impetus for the bill, which is now on the governor's desk, was a 2011 private meeting between Gov. Jerry Brown and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors regarding his controversial "realignment" plan that transferred state prison inmates to county jails. This is one of the most significant public-policy decisions in a decade, in that it directly affects not only public dollars but public safety. Residents and local officials fear that a policy that saves the state money may also be putting dangerous criminals on the streets.
A county prosecutor issued an opinion that the meeting was a violation of state open-meeting laws. Then, instead of taking steps to ensure no such transgressions would take place in the future, state leaders decided to codify the likely wrongdoing by passing this law, authored by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena.
As KCRA-TV in Sacramento reported, the law "adds the governor to an existing list of public officials who can meet in closed session with local officials on certain matters. Those include threats to security of public buildings, facilities and services and public access to those services." That description is so amorphous that many issues could be excluded from public view. And why should public-safety issues be excluded from debate? If anything, state and local officials ought to be sure to include the public in these debates in particular.
"If we start allowing for exceptions in matters of public security, it could be used to justify the concealment of information on anything from disaster preparedness to realignment," Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, said in published reports. Mr. Yee is one of the few legislators from either party to stand up to the state's secrecy lobby.
In itself, AB246 will not dramatically alter the level of openness in state government. But it is the latest example of how state officials seem all too willing to operate with less transparency.
The Register editorial page recently pointed out other examples of this trend. For instance, a new law blocks the public from seeing how public dollars are spent on contractors hired by the new state agency that will implement the Affordable Care Act. Legislators have also been using with greater frequency the gut-and-amend process to swiftly pass legislation without scrutiny. And there are other efforts to protect public employees from oversight and to soften open-meeting requirements.
In our society, the People - not officials, operating secretively - are still supposed to reign supreme. The governor and many legislators should bear that in mind.
Riverside Press-Enterprise: "Avoid shortsighted budget that hikes future costs"
California's improved short-term financial picture does not justify a resumption of bad fiscal habits. The state should know by now the risks of committing taxpayers to spending of money that may never appear. Legislators should tie budget choices to available tax receipts, not create big costs in future years.
Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators this week announced a budget deal that proposes $96.3 billion in general fund spending. That amount represents an increase over the current year's $95.7 billion general fund budget, but is about $2 billion less than the spending plans that emerged from the Senate and Assembly. The governor and ranking legislators on Tuesday touted the deal as a fiscally responsible approach for a state that has wrestled with massive budget deficits in recent years.
But any budgetary caution apparently has a short lifespan. The budget deal includes several commitments to ramp up state spending in years following the next fiscal year — which restrains costs in the short term in return for bigger outlays later.
The full details of the new budget plan have yet to emerge, but news reports this week have already offered a glimpse of the thinking at work. The new budget promises to boost spending on health, social services and other programs that have faced restraints in recent years. But the plan pushes many of those increases off into 2014-15 and later years. The deal also includes a new scholarship program for middle-income Californians slated to begin in 2014-15, eventually costing the state $305 million a year. And the state has reached a tentative pact with its largest employee union for a 4.5 percent pay hike by 2015, at an unspecified future cost to taxpayers.
That shortsighted approach is dangerous, however, in a state where tax collections are notoriously volatile from year to year. The temporary tax hikes powering this year's revenue gains — intended by voters for K-12 education, not employee raises and other new spending — also disappear in seven years, potentially leaving a $6 billion hole in state coffers.
And the Legislature has yet to address a series of hugely expensive long-term challenges. The state has a funding shortfall of more than $181 billion for pension and retiree health payouts over the next 30 years — a deficit that will add billions of dollars annually to state spending in future years absent steps to cut the cost of those programs now. California also has a $10.5 billion shortfall in its unemployment insurance fund, costing the state more than $300 million annually in interest payments while imposing higher payroll taxes on California employers. The state also has nearly $28 billion in past budgetary borrowing awaiting repayment, and still shortchanges highway and bridge maintenance by about $5.6 billion each year.
One easy budget year does not mean the state's finances have stabilized, or that the state no longer has to worry about debt, deficits, crumbling infrastructure and crushing long-term costs. California has endless demands for spending courtesy of taxpayers, and limited funds to meet those requests — which calls for fiscal caution. Boosting future spending based on one year's improvement is the surest way to ensure fresh waves of red ink.
San Jose Mercury-News: "Night Stalker meets death but not penalty"
Richard Ramirez is dead. The serial killer dubbed the Night Stalker was the face of evil for many Southern Californians, and now he is the face of something else -- the futility of this state's system of capital punishment.
Ramirez was 25 when he was captured in 1985. He was 53 when he died Friday morning at San Quentin State Prison. He lived more than half of his life with the death penalty hanging over him but never came close to suffering a state execution, let alone the kind of satanic horror he perpetrated on his 13 victims.
In a 2010 Los Angeles Daily News article, a legal expert was quoted as saying that Ramirez's case was "only about halfway through the appeals process" and that he would likely be in his 70s before he was executed.
You might say that, by dying of natural causes, he beat the system. But that's not hard. It's a terrible system. While voters didn't repeal it last fall when Proposition 34 gave them the chance, we hope they'll come around the next time it's on the ballot.
The death penalty has been costing the state more than $100 million a year on legal battles and death row incarceration, analysts said. And it's not killing people. Since the state resumed executions in 1992, 13 condemned convicts have been put to death, while more than 700 sat in prison. Ramirez became the 85th death row inmate to die of natural causes.
What's saddest is that the millions of dollars wasted on all this could be spent instead on education and other things that are proven to prevent crime, including more cops on the street but also services like code enforcement and libraries. Prevention can save young people from wasting their lives, and it saves others the pain of becoming victims.
Last month, a state appeals court extended the death penalty's legal limbo by striking down California's latest attempt to find a lethal injection procedure that is sufficiently humane. The court ruled that prison officials flouted administrative rules when they crafted the new protocol. And so capital punishment stays on hold.
Some other states speed up the imposition of the death penalty, but others are suspending or ending it, having discovered through new DNA analysis that they had innocent people on death row. It seems likely that innocent people have been executed.
Ramirez was guilty as sin. We were reminded of that periodically over the years as his appeals dragged on. That had to magnify the pain of his victims' surviving loved ones. Wouldn't it be better to just toss a guy like that in prison and leave him there forever? No more threat to society, and no more wasteful, endless appeals.
It's obviously a broken system when even Richard Ramirez eludes it.
Fresno Bee: "Leaks show that secret data isn't really secret"
Members of Congress are calling for the prosecution of Edward Snowden for leaking the existence of far-reaching U.S. surveillance programs. Given that Snowden, 29, says he knew he was breaking the law to expose what he considered to be governmental abuse, he surely will be prosecuted. He may even desire it.
Yet high-ranking members of Congress -- including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- can't get away with just calling for Snowden's head and holding a few pro forma hearings on what his leaks have revealed. They need to engage in introspection about their failure to oversee and put a check on security subcontractors, a shadowy arm of the secret government that has mushroomed since the 9/11 attacks.
Although he previously worked for the CIA, Snowden was not a government employee. He wasn't even a high-ranking officer within Booz Allen Hamilton, the security contractor for which he worked. In interviews, Snowden has stated he was surprised that anyone in the U.S. security field, much less a low-level contractor, would have such broad access to phone call logs, email records and other communications of U.S. citizens. He said he felt obligated to "inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."
Booz Allen Hamilton is one of several firms that have cashed in on post-9/11 security concerns to do front-line work of collecting and analyzing communications data. Along the way, they've created a revolving door between their corporate offices and the National Security Agency.
Whether you see Snowden as a traitor or a hero, you should be alarmed that a private employee at his level could access so much personal data and use it for whatever purpose he decided. This fact alone reveals that the government's vast store of secret data isn't secret at all. It is accessible to thousands upon thousands with security clearances, many of whom have not been adequately vetted.
Some have compared Snowden to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, another low-ranking computer specialist with a security clearance who, in a self-proclaimed act of conscience, leaked national security secrets. Yet there are big differences between the two.
Manning was a member of the U.S. military, not a private firm, and he leaked a data dump of vast amounts of information, some of which arguably could be used to expose CIA agents and contacts. Snowden, by contrast, exposed the existence of a pair of surveillance programs the government was attempting to keep secret, not the targets of any surveillance.
We agree that communications metadata could be a vital tool to ward off possible terrorist attacks. But use of such tracking must be highly focused, with safeguards to prevent misuse. Snowden has revealed gaping holes in the system, which Congress and Obama have enabled.
Contra Costa Times: "California Lawmakers must insist PUC do its job"
The Legislature needs to remind the state Public Utilities Commission that it works for the people of California. Instead, the regulatory agency is doing PG&E's bidding at practically every turn, keeping taxpayers and ratepayers in the dark while the utility rakes in hundreds of millions of their dollars.
Gov. Jerry Brown is clearly loathe to do his job and secure PUC President Michael Peevey's resignation. The Legislature must demand that PG&E and the PUC bring complete transparency to their every move.
The latest outrage unfolded last week, two days before the PUC's deadline for filing a final brief on PG&E's role in the fatal gas explosion in San Bruno. The PUC staff lawyers were reportedly wanting to throw the book at PG&E. But the PUC hierarchy on Wednesday reassigned the lawyers, allowing the powers that be to recommend a much softer penalty.
"PG&E couldn't have written a better brief unless it wrote it itself," said San Mateo Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno. Unfortunately, many local and state officials believe that's exactly what happened.
PG&E is effectively a monopoly, and because Peevey has allowed it to have its way, Californians have no idea what PG&E is doing with its vast revenues. Even after the San Bruno tragedy, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, PG&E finances largely remain a big, black hole. This, despite multiple investigations showing PG&E for decades used money intended for gasoline maintenance and other safety essentials to pay executive bonuses and line shareholders' pockets.
No one but PG&E really knows to this day if the gazillions the utility says it is spending on gasoline inspections and improvements is actually taking place.
Hill tried to bring greater transparency to the PUC and PG&E through his bill, SB611. But the reach of Peevey and the PUC and PG&E's lobbying power got the bill killed in committee.
Hill should redouble his efforts, and every Bay Area legislator who saw the impact of PG&E's negligence should get on board.
The status quo must have former California Gov. Hiram Johnson spinning in his grave. Johnson was elected governor California in 1910 on a platform of reining in the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, which at the time completely dominated state politics.
Johnson returned power to the people by instituting a regulatory commission with the authority to put the railroads in their rightful place.
The modern incarnation of the California Railroad Commission was the precursor of today's Public Utilities Commission. The Legislature needs to remind the PUC of its most basic reason for being.