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CA policy: Gimmicks versus Facts: the politics of marketing

In my last blog, I discussed the effectiveness of a 3-week media blitz that overthrew a California Proposition backed by significant financial investment, popular support, and academic research.  This week's blog will explore another example of the importance of a good marketing strategy when campaigning for criminal justice initiatives.

California Proposition 5 (2008)

Prop. 5, known also as the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), was a ballot initiative scheduled for the November 4, 2008 ballot in California.  The Proposition aimed to expand drug treatment diversion programs and rehabilitation programs in prisons, modify parole supervision procedures and sentencing for certain drug offenses, and increase the incentives for rehabilitation programming through additional prison time credits.

The financial contributions to the respective campaigns for this proposition looked like this:

Supporters Total: $7,601,079
Opponents Total: $2,886,965
A list of supporters demonstrates that Proposition 5 had the fervent support of many policy groups including the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, mental health organizations, community leaders, and politicians, both state and nationwide.

A list of opponents identifies law enforcement and correctional agencies, some familiar faces:

~ Former Governor Pete Wilson
~ Former Governor Gray Davis
~ Then Governor Arnold Schwarznegger
~ "U.S. drug czar" John Walters

...and the unlikely ally, actor Martin Sheen, who announced that he would be a leading spokesperson against the Propostion.

Proposition 5 failed passage by 59.5% no votes to 40.5% yes votes.

If we take a look at the methodology utilized by both the "Yes on 5" and "No on 5" campaigns we can see some interesting contrasts, summed up by The Real Cost of Prisons:

"When the Nonviolent Offenders Rehabilitation Act (NORA) was shot down by about a 60-40 margin in November, it was partly due to the advocacy efforts of drug-court judges, who allied themselves with law enforcement, prison guards, and some prevention groups in opposing the measure. NORA backers, who undertook a low-key campaign to build on and improve the Proposition 36 reforms approved by state voters in 2000, instead suffered a unexpected and crushing defeat." [bold added]

Again, for a successful criminal justice initiative, the proof lies in marketing.  The "Yes on 5" campaign had a strong constituency, but the "No on 5" campaign obtained the support of the media:

Newspaper editorial boards opposed to the passage of Proposition 5 included:

~ The Los Angeles Times
~ The Pasadena Star News
~ San Diego Union-Tribune
~ Sacramento Bee
~ San Francisco Chronicle
~ Fresno Bee
~ San Jose Mercury News
~ Stockton Record
~ Contra Costa Times
~ Bakersfield Californian

The opponents of Prop. 5 not only maximized on their celebrity allies, but also their political connections.  Their anti-prop 5 commercial included Senator Feinstein and featured quotes from prominent newspapers calling Prop. 5 the "get out of jail free card" and imploring the public to "say no to drug dealers."

In comparison, the vote yes on prop 5 commercial, focused on what the proposition would do -- give treatment to young addicts, rehabilitate non-violent offenders, improve public safety, and save taxpayer dollars.  John DeMiranda, Executive Director of the National Association on Alcohol, Drugs and Disability, and a supporter of Prop. 5, observed:

"In the wake of the NORA defeat, "It's no longer possible for [the treatment and recovery community] to piggyback on public sentiment," said DeMiranda. "We have to get our people to the ballot box so it's not so easy ... to demonize this kind of initiative.""

Given the history of Prop. 5, it seems that a high visibility multimedia approach is a major key to a successful criminal justice policy campaign. In politics, branding rather than data often sways the vote.

For basic info on Prop 5. see this summary:

Keywords: media, Selena Teji, state policy

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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