Nearly three months after the passing of Proposition 47, controversy is still rampant. Law enforcement and public safety organizations are defying any positive outcomes of the measure, while violence prevention and criminal rehabilitative programs embrace it—The Los Angeles Times even wrote a public endorsement story. What does the passing of this proposition really mean?
Proposition 47, the measure that reduces penalties for certain offenders convicted of nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes, hopes to solve the problem of overcrowding in California’s state and county prisons. A major factor in the passing of this proposition is that, according to the official California General Election Voting Guide, the measure requires that money saved in booking inmates for minor crimes will be allocated for mental and drug rehabilitation centers, K–12 education and trauma recovery services for crime victims.
Where will the money go?
According to 2013’s “The Year In Accomplishments,” published by California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the budget allocated to the Division of Rehabilitative Programs is one of the smallest, at $396, 340, 000 in comparison to the Division of Health Care Services and the Division of Adult Institutions, which are given more than two billion dollars each. Proposition 47 hopes to change this.
When Proposition 47 appeared on the scene late last year, it was met with general public acceptance after having been put on the ballot by petition signatures. It was voted on and approved in the Nov. 4, 2014 election, and was enacted on Nov. 5, immediately after the votes had been counted.
According to the voting guide, the measure requires misdemeanor sentencing instead of felony for certain drug possession offenses, and the following crimes when the amount involved is $950 or less: petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging/writing bad checks.
What do approving and opposing arguments say?
Those who were in favor of the proposition argue that its passing will improve public safety, reduce prison spending and therefore dedicate millions of dollars to public education, crime victim assistance and mental health and drug treatment. If such funding increases participation in these programs and makes participants less likely to commit future crimes, the measure could result in future additional savings to the state and counties.
Proposition 47 is retroactive, meaning offenders who have already been convicted of a felony that is now considered a misdemeanor can petition to have their case resentenced, however, meaning extra paperwork for the legal defense system.
The measure will bring an estimated 17 percent increase in work load, according to a report submitted to the city council requesting additional staffing due to the need to review cases of criminals already sentenced who apply for case review under the terms of the proposition.
Carol Clem, one of three assistant public defenders in the law office of the Los Angeles County Public Defender, supported the measure, saying, “Public defenders must advocate for fair and consistent funding and resources. … This is a way we can do that.”
As someone who defends many of the criminals this proposition would advocate for, she sees the direct effect of the measure.
“It’s a long process. … But the dangerous felons will still be sentenced accordingly, and in turn, money that would go toward the legal processing of less-violent criminals can be used for the mental and drug rehabilitation programs that we need to be focusing our attention and effort on,” Clem said.
Clearing a felony conviction from your record could open doors for employment chances, the ability to qualify for student loans and pubic housing assistance. “Thousands and thousands of people are going to have better lives because of this,” Clem said.
Now three months since the November passing of the proposition, Clem said they are focusing first on clients who are currently serving time in prison under what used to be a felony before Proposition 47 passed.
The fiscal impact of the proposition is hard to ignore, but those who are against the passing claim that the money being saved would be unlikely to go toward the programs it is being allocated for. While many employees of the legal system view Proposition 47 as a positive change, much of the state’s law enforcement sees it differently—the California Police Chiefs Association is one of the strongest opponents to the measure.
Steve Hunt, captain of the operations division of the Azusa police department, interacts with both violent and nonviolent criminals on a daily basis, and knows firsthand what the implications of this proposition could be.
“It will ultimately lead to increased crime. … The measure minimizes sentencing for drugs that have serious implications and negative effects on the criminals caught using and selling them. These aren’t the people we can just let off the hook and trust not to do it again,” Hunt said.
Hunt brings up one of the chief points of the measure, and one that many opponents to the proposition stand firmly behind. According to californiansagainst47.com, the law prior to Prop 47 stated that the possession of predatory drugs, “date-rape” drugs, can be charged as a felony. With the proposition in place, the scope of these crimes is minimized “by reducing the penalty for possession of Rohypnol, ketamine, GHB (date-rape drugs) and any other drug designed to render a victim helpless to a simple misdemeanor.”
Californians Against 47 holds the belief, like many opponents, that the proposition undermines laws against sex crimes.
“The lack of attention to this specific issue is particularly disturbing when measured against the unhappy reality of the increasing use of these drugs by sexual predator’s intent on engaging in serious criminal conduct,” the group’s website reads.
Those opposing Hunt’s view believe that the measure will lead to a reduction in crime, without the threat of an increase in rape cases. The proposition maintains the current law for registered sex offenders and anyone with prior convictions for rape, murder or child molestation.
Why does the prison population matter?
Reigning as one of the top states in the matter, California, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, is known for its extremely high prison population, often leaving prisoners in facilities classified as cruel and unusual. In 2013, California was given until Feb. 2016 to reduce the state prison population to 113, 722.
Due to the overcrowding in California prisons, funds have been cut from other areas to afford the care of extra inmates. Mental health institutions and higher education have been the victim of these cuts, according to the New York Times’ feature, “Cuts in California.”
The prison crisis is nothing new. In 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, calling the state prison system “dangerously overcrowded,” according to a radio documentary that debuted in 2007 titled “Prisons in Crisis: A State of Emergency in California.”
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office put together a report in July estimating the impact the proposition would have on the state’s prison population and incarceration costs.
Using 2012 as a baseline, the data shows that Prop 47 will result in roughly 40,000 fewer charges resulting in incarceration per year. In terms of space in state and county jails, that adds up to a lot of free beds, which also means a lot of money saved.
How has the proposition affected California so far?
According to BallotPedia, and interactive almanac of U.S. politics, the aftermath of the proposition can already be measured.
The site reads, “Following Proposition 47’s approval in November 2014, inmate populations in prisons began to fall across the state of California. In Los Angeles, which has the country’s largest jail system, the inmate population fell from 18,601 in November to 17,285 in January 2015. According to Jody Sharp, a commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, narcotics arrest fell one-third and bookings fell by a quarter in January 2015 relative to the previous year.”
This information may sway in favor of the proposition’s endorsers, but others view the effect of the proposition negatively.
“Los Angeles City Councilman and former LAPD chief Bernard Parks noted that while drug-related arrests fell, thefts and residential burglaries rose. He stated, ‘But what they failed to consider is that people who are using drugs are also committing other crimes. How do they stay heroin users? How do they support their habit? … People don’t want to understand that I can’t be a crack addict and have a profession. Nobody’s giving me drugs. I rob and burglarize and steal,’” wrote BallotPedia’s Proposition 47 analysis.
Much of California is split on the matter—the proposition won the vote by just 59 percent—and while the state may have made some progress, the months to come will be crucial in analyzing the true aftermath of the proposition’s passing.