The Last Straw: Problems With California Law | Sarah Stook

“What are you in for?”

“DUI- you?”

“Using plastric straws.”

It sounds like the beginning of a bad comedy sketch, but it’s sadly true. A recent ruling by the Santa Barbara City Council banned the use of plastic straws, ruling that they are an environmental hazard, this following years of campaigning by enviromentalists. Though somewhat of a victory for those who love the earth, both the practical and constitutional effects are somewhat dim. California has become well known for its questionable laws in recent years, becoming a pariah state for conservatives who decry it as a lawless land of liberalism. For many however, the last straw- if you’ll pardon the pun.

Seattle became the first city in the USA to ban straws, but gave an automatic exemption for those covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act 1990. This is not the case in the Californian coastal city, where businesses must apply for an exemption. For many, it’s the price to pay for a better environment but considering how bad bureacracy can be, the red tape may elongate the period that a business can be without straws. This is completely unfair on those who are disabled, as they are unable to enjoy the rights and privileges that their abled friends do, as AWDA was created for.  Though not stricly unconstitutional as it does provide an exemption for the disabled, it still puts many in an awkward position. Moving away from the disabled and we have the consequences of the action. The first strike comes with a warning, but a second strike comes with the possibility of a fine not exceeding $1000 and a jail term not exceeding six months. Now, jail term for giving out plastic straws is bad enough, but this is not for a batch of straws- it is just for giving out one straw. If a company gives it to some disabled people without having applied for an exemption, then this jail time can stack up and fines can decimate a business, especially an SME. Other California cities have already done a straw ban- Malibu and Santa Monica, with San Francisco looking to follow, but none have suggested jail time as Santa Barbara has. Clogging up court time from plastic straws is not a great way to get the legislative system working properly.

What has gone wrong with California? Two more cases highlight it.

In a recent case, California lowered the penalties for knowingly giving HIV during sexual intercourse. What was once a felony that netted the perpetrator a maximum of eight years in prison is now a misdemeanour that carries a maximum of six months inside. The same law has also decriminalised knowingly giving HIV infected blood for transfusions. Those who support the law- mainly Democrats, naturally- argue that it destigmatises those with the disease and it should encourage treatment and testing. They also argue that the chance of transmition is negilible. Whilst HIV/AIDS is not the same as it was when it killed Freddie Mercury, Liberace and Rock Hudson and is much more treatable, it is still a deadly disease that is a huge killer in Sub-Saharan Africa and other nations where it is more prevalent. Though the US healthcare system can help those with the disease, not everybody has the health insurance to cover it and there is no guarantee that it will work. Even with treatment, nobody should have to live with it. Unknowingly giving it is clearly unfortunate, but knowingly giving someone a disease that amounted to a death sentence years ago is not right. Decriminalising purposeful HIV spreading is not the way to go. Some will know of the story of Ryan White, a young boy who got HIV after the blood given during a transfusion turned out to be infected. When this fact was discovered, he was nearly forced out of his school by concerned parents, students and teachers, as it was still in the era where people believed that it could be spread on toilet seats. THAT is stigma. Ryan White never lived to see the leaps and bounds that have occured in HIV treatment. There still is a stigma, and people being infected in any way will get the abuse that Ryan White got, perhaps not as bad, but it still happens. When people can maliciously give someone HIV through intercourse and get the same amount of time for someone who gave out a plastic straw, you know there are issues.

The third and final case is that of the infamous Brock Turner.

A promising swimmer at the prestigious Stanford University, Turner raped a drunken, unconcious women outside of a house party that they both attended. A pair of students stopped him from further penetrating the girl (‘Emily Doe’), but the damage was done- he had still fondled her and penetrated her against her will. In a highly publicised trial, Turner received a disgustingly low six months as well as three years probation and lifelong registration on the Sex Offenders Register. Only serving three months, he also quit Stanford as opposed to being kicked out. His father Dan Turner asked for leniency in a letter, calling it ‘a steep price to pay for twenty minutes of action.’ This rightly angered many- it was rape, not sex. Though Brock Turner is easily one of the most hated people in the planet, he has got away with three months inside for rape and now lives a free life, unlike his poor victim who has to live her life knowing what she went through. Voters later recalled the judge who gave such a lenient sentence, that judge accused of favouring Turner for being a white male from a good family who attended a prestigious school and had a future as an Olympic swimmer. In the official transcript of the case, the judge factored in several things such as his apparent remorse (yeah, sure), his youth, his lack of a prior criminal record (he did rape someone) and, this is the best one, that he would not be a danger to others if he was not imprisoned. Turner raped a woman but he’s apparently not dangerous, whereas someone giving out *gasp* a straw is a menace to society and should be locked up.

The question remains: why has the California legislative and judicial system gone so pear shaped?

As the Republicans have become the third party in the state after the Democrats and Independents, so one could say that the increase in liberal politics is to blame. That is certainly to blame for the first two. Though environmentalism can be inclusive with conservativism- see Theodore Roosevelt, it is mainly a left wing ideal. Though the Santa Barbara City Council is technically non-partisan, the Democrats do have an ideological advantage (they have endorsed the mayor and other councillors) and other left-wing decisions include tax rises and more spending on transportation. It is harder to prove in the HIV decision case, but those who supported it were Democrats whilse it faced fierce opposition from state Republicans, indicative of the more relaxed view of law and order on the left. As for the third, it is unfair to say it is a partisan as rape is something that is abhorred by both the left and the right. The party of the judge is unknown as those on the bench tend to be non partisan, though it would be wrong to accuse it of being a liberal position if he was a dyed in the wool liberal. In the case of Brock Turner, it seems to be indicative of a wider problem with judges giving sentences not fit for the crime, such as when ethnic minorities receive longer time inside for non-violent drug offences than whites. Liberal policies, an inept judiciary and the social fabric of the The Golden State have created an issue that badly needs fixing.

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