The passage of California’s Proposition 47 in November 2014 – which reduced many felony drug possession and property crimes to misdemeanors – might be a harbinger of criminal justice reform nationwide. But for now, reform advocates have gladly accepted the release of as many as 10,000 California state prisoners and thousands more in county jails across the state who became eligible to go home as a result of the ballot initiative.
More than 58% of California voters voted in favor of Prop 47, choosing to rethink the tough-on-crime approach that has defined the state’s criminal justice system for decades and resulted in extreme prison overcrowding due to three-strikes laws and harsh mandatory minimums.
The initiative, known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, reduces the number of people sent to prison for non-serious, nonviolent crimes and redirects money currently spent on financing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to support crime prevention programs.
State taxpayers spend $11 billion annually on California’s prison system, which has been so overcrowded that in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce the CDCR’s population by around 40,000 prisoners. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].
“The fact that [Prop 47] passed by such a wide margin sends a strong message to policymakers across the country that people are sick and tired of the old debate between treatment and punishment,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project. “They now know that there are other solutions that will provide less crime at lower cost; [and] that will give policymakers across the country greater comfort in examining their own laws.”
The greatest impact of Prop 47 on California’s court system and correctional facilities, according to legal experts, will be on defendants charged with or convicted of drug possession crimes. Possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and concentrated cannabis for personal use – all formerly felony charges – are now, in almost every case, misdemeanors.
Prop 47 also increased the felony threshold for several property crimes, from $500 to $950 – including shoplifting, forgery, passing bad checks, theft and receiving stolen property.
In March 2014, Mississippi passed legislation that lowered penalties for simple drug possession and raised the felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000. South Carolina passed similar laws in 2010, while Oregon, Georgia, Delaware and Colorado have done the same in recent years. California, however, is the first state in the nation to downgrade such offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.
Prop 47 not only revised California’s criminal code; it did so retroactively, thereby affecting defendants or felony probationers with pending charges, prisoners currently serving time and felons who had already completed their sentences.
However, charge and sentence reductions under Prop 47 do not occur automatically. Defendants, prisoners and affected ex-offenders must apply to their courts of jurisdiction for reductions.
Not all prisoners or convicted felons are eligible for sentence or charge reductions under Prop 47. Those who have prior convictions for certain violent or sexual offenses are not eligible, nor are those required to register as a sex offender. Further, offenders previously convicted of a violent offense, such as murder or solicitation of murder, warranting either a life term or a sentence of death, are ineligible for reductions under Prop 47.
For all others, the initiative stipulates that applications for reduction must be filed with the sentencing court within three years of the law’s enactment. The deadline is November 4, 2017.
“The best thing for most prisoners who might be affected by Proposition 47 to do is to write to their criminal trial and/or appellate attorneys, asking for more information or help,” the Prison Law Office said in a statement after Prop 47 passed. “Filing a petition on your own, or using a jailhouse lawyer to file a petition, may not provide the best chance of getting your crime or sentence reduced.”
Some legislative analysts predicted that the state’s annual number of felony convictions could drop from 220,000 to around 180,000. In November 2015, one year into the implementation of Prop 47, the Los Angeles Times noted that statewide prison populations were down 3.8% while statewide jail populations had decreased 11.7% as of March 2015.
As reported by the San Francisco Examiner in November 2015, a Stanford Law School study found recidivism rates among prisoners released under Prop 47 to be low. Despite law enforcement claims that the releases had contributed to rising crime rates, the Stanford report determined that only 159 of the 4,454 prisoners released at that time had been re-incarcerated on new charges.
Nevertheless, some media outlets, such as the San Francisco Chronicle, have elected to demonize Prop 47 and the prisoners who were released due to sentence reductions. In articles following the enactment of Prop 47, the Chronicle placed the onus of increased property crime rates squarely on the law.
Aside from the fact that fewer than 20 prisoners had been freed under the provisions of Prop 47 in the San Francisco area, the Chronicle asserted in March 2016 that reducing sentences – from felonies to misdemeanors – of certain property offenses under Prop 47 had resulted in San Francisco becoming the U.S. city with the fastest-growing property crime rates, most notably manifested in the “rampant looting of cars” in the city.
However, proponents of Prop 47 pointed out that auto burglary remains a felony offense unaffected by Prop 47. Similarly, increases in violent crime have been reported in all ten major California metropolitan areas since Prop 47 was enacted, though the law did not reduce sentences for violent offenses.
Further, according to the Los Angeles Times, following the passage of Prop 47 there has been a trend for prisoners to spend a greater portion of their sentences in newly-decongested county jails. For example, the Times reported in November 2015 that prisoners held in Los Angeles County’s jail system were, on average, serving 70% of their sentences as opposed to only 20% prior to Prop 47 due to overcrowding.
Sources: www.thecrimereport.org, www.mercurynews.com, www.latimes.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, Prison Law Office, www.cdcr.ca.gov, www.sfexaminer.com, www.sfchronicle.com
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