Prop 47 Makes Thousands of Drug, Property Offenders Eligible for Release
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 will gladly accept the imminent release of as many as 10,000 California state prisoners and thousands more in county jails across the state who are now eligible to go home.
More than 58% of California voters approved Prop 47 in last year's midterm elections, choosing to rethink the tough-on-crime approach that has defined the state's criminal-justice system for decades and overpopulated California's prisons using three-strike laws and harsh mandatory minimums.
The legislation—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 California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to support crime-prevention programs.
State taxpayers spend $11 billion annually on California's prisons, which have been so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the CDCR in 2011 to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands.
"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 on California's criminal courts and correctional facilities, according to legal experts, will be on defendants charged and/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, strictly 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 its felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000. South Carolina passed similar laws in 2010, while Oregon, Georgia, Delaware and Colorado did the same in recent years. California, however, is the first state in the country to downgrade such crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
Prop 47 not only revised California's criminal code; it did so retroactively, thereby affecting defendants or felony probationers with charges pending, offenders currently serving sentences and felons who have already completed their sentences.
"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, based in San Quentin, Calif., said in a written release after Prop 47's passage. "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 felony conviction rate of 220,000 could now drop by 40,000.
Sources: thecrimereport.org, mercurynews.com, latimes.com, huffingtonpost.com, Prison Law Office