Gavin Newsom’s recent announcement of a death penalty moratorium drew critique from supporters of capital punishment who argued that Newsom employed his executive power in a way that flies in the face of what the people of California want (which is, by a small majority, the death penalty to stay.) In the last week I’ve had to debate this issue on TV and on the radio with a few commentators, some more erudite than others, and even though the pace of public appearances was rather frantic, I made a mental note that I need to take the counterargument more seriously and think about populism more deeply.

Thankfully, life provided a really interesting opportunity to do so: I’m just returning home from a beautiful day in New York City, which I spent as Author-in-Residence at St. John School of Law‘s Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development. I spent the day discussing various implications of a piece I wrote for the journal, which was loosely based on this blog post.The schedule for the day was beautifully student-centered and my gracious hosts made sure that their students got the most out of an informal conversation about writing in the morning, a great lunch conversation, and a more formal presentation with Q&A in the afternoon. 
We talked about lots of things: the perniciousness of social media mobbing, whether rage was exhaustive or generative, whether reputations soiled by formal or informal social control can be redeemed (and at what cost), whether there’s any hope for bipartisan civil discourse—in short, the things that ail and worry us all. Among the students’ excellent comments was a polite-but-passionate disagreement a student had with my position on Judge Persky’s recall. As regular blog readers know, I think the recall was a vile example of the scorched earth mentality that drives a lot of lefty activism nowadays and a terrible message for judges to be harsh. The student who disagreed with me saw it quite differently. He saw it as an important message to the judge (and other judges) that he should respect the will of the people.
After the talk, the student came over and we continued our conversation. It turned out that the student was a community organizer who was appalled by the New York State legislature’s imperviousness to impassioned public calls to change the statute of limitations in a way that would allow prosecuting prominent Catholic Church priests involved in the massive sexual abuse scandal. He expressed regret that New York had so little referendum-based legislation, because he suspected that, had the statute-of-limitations issue come up on referendum, about 80% of state voters would support eliminating barriers for prosecution. 
As the student was explaining his position, I realized something important. My hosts and I live in states that are very different, respectively, in terms of their political culture. New York is governed largely through professional, elitist bureaucracy, whereas California is governed through political and emotional populism. As Vanessa Barker argues in The Politics of Imprisonment, these divergent political cultures have shaped two very different criminal justice systems, with California’s characterized by much more punitive excess in terms of legislation and policy. Of course, the criminal process in New York is not clean of problems—the NYPD scandals and the conditions at Rikers are but two notable examples—but the sheer size of the California apparatus and its patchwork of aggressive sentencing laws reflect the punitive animus stoked in a public that votes for criminal justice policies via referendum. Because of these different cultures, our respective natural tendencies are to see the blemishes in our own environment and perceive the other system in a more favorable light. In other words, while I’m used to seeing the serious problems, excesses, and miscarriages of justice that come from a money-flooded direct democracy rife with oversimplification and disinformation, the student who came to speak to me was used to seeing the legislative elite turn a cold shoulder to the values and expectations of their constituents. 
Reasonable people can disagree, I think, on how much direct democracy is appropriate for a particular political culture. But it’s important to make this call on the basis of facts. Does the public tend to be punitive? And how punitive, and in what contexts? There is rich literature on this, which I reviewed extensively in Chapter 7 of Cheap on Crime. The gist of it is that, while the public holds complicated views on punishment and rehabilitation, it is possible (and easy) to craft questions and provide information in a way that yields punitive outcomes. For example, surveys reveal that people are significantly less likely to support lengthy incarceration when they are provided with real data about how much it costs. The problem is that, in a partisan—indeed, polarized—legislative atmosphere, there’s very little guarantee that the public will actually get credible, dependable facts; instead, supporters and opponents of a particular bill will provide a lot of noise and spin, leaving people with good will, but with little background in public policy and economics, to make their own decisions. 
One example is the idea that someone might support the death penalty in good faith because they believe that capital punishment is good for victims and that victims want it. But we know that different people process tragedy in different ways, and that not everyone sees the death penalty as conducive to their healing from a devastating loss. I can say that, in my visits to the violence prevention coalitions in Santa Rosa and in Sacramento, I heard victims’ family members espouse exactly the opposite—and those are, typically, poor people of color, whose voices do not usually ring very loud in the policymaking arena. Is it elitist, or undemocratic, to consider the possibility that the public has been systematically misinformed about what victims want, and therefore lacks valuable and relevant knowledge?
Similarly, consider this horrifying piece of news I read this morning. The violence, the sheer amount of defense required for mere survival, the blood and bodily secretions at all places… a friend posted today on Facebook that if the public knew just a little of what happens in these institutions, we would not have them. It’s not malice–it’s ignorance. Is it elitist, or undemocratic, to suggest that people who call for lengthy incarceration terms have never been inside a prison, have no idea what it looks and feels like, and cannot imagine themselves or their loved ones go through it?

Theoretically, a good compromise between my position and that of the student might be a referendum system that also delivers nonpartisan information about the bills (particularly the budget) and limits expenditure and propaganda to a minimum. How that is to be achieved in a country in love with an absolute First Amendment is a difficult question. What leads me to despair is the fact that, in general, we’re experiencing a fairly shaky hold on the truth in the last few years, intensifying the already existing problem of voter ignorance and campaign misinformation that plagues referendum systems.

It’s pretty distressing to end up with this position, which seems to dovetail with Tom Lehrer’s introduction to one of his songs, where he says that “the reason folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.” An old friend who grew up in Saudi Arabia told me of going to public executions at the ripe age of 9 and seeing the crowds cheer. Sometimes we need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away from a site of an atrocity by a responsible adult. I think what Newsom is trying to do is be that adult for us. 

Oh, and let’s talk more about this on April 9 at 7:30pm at Manny’s. Here’s the link to the event–I hope to see many of you there.

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