Under Proposition 47, the state would reduce, to misdemeanors, offenses for drug possession, petty theft, receiving stolen property or writing bad checks, when the amount involved is less than $950. It would continue to allow for felony sentences if the person has a previous conviction for crimes such as rape, murder or child molestation, or is a registered sex offender.
It also will require “resentencing for persons serving felony sentences for these offenses unless court finds unreasonable public safety risk.” The attorney general projects, “Net state criminal justice system savings that could reach the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which would be spent on truancy prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victim services. Net county criminal justice system savings that could reach the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”
The Legislative Analyst’s Office explains, “This measure reduces penalties for certain offenders convicted of nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes. The measure also allows certain offenders who have been previously convicted of such crimes to apply for reduced sentences.
“This measure would have a number of fiscal effects on the state and local governments. The size of these effects would depend on several key factors,” the LAO writes. “In particular, it would depend on the way individuals are currently being sentenced for the felony crimes changed by this measure. Currently, there is limited data available on this, particularly at the county level.”
The LAO continues, “The fiscal effects would also depend on how certain provisions in the measure are implemented, including how offenders would be sentenced for crimes changed by the measure. For example, it is uncertain whether such offenders would be sentenced to jail or community supervision and for how long. In addition, the fiscal effects would depend heavily on the number of crimes affected by the measure that are committed in the future. Thus, the fiscal effects of the measure described below are subject to significant uncertainty.”
However, they also note that the measure makes two changes that would reduce the state prison population and those associated costs.
“First, changing future crimes from felonies and wobblers to misdemeanors would make fewer offenders eligible for state prison sentences,” they write. “We estimate that this could result in an ongoing reduction to the state prison population of several thousand inmates within a few years.”
They continue, “The resentencing of inmates currently in state prison could result in the release of several thousand inmates, temporarily reducing the state prison population for a few years after the measure becomes law.”
However, “In addition, the resentencing of individuals currently serving sentences for felonies that are changed to misdemeanors would temporarily increase the state parole population by a couple thousand parolees over a three-year period. The costs associated with this increase in the parole population would temporarily offset a portion of the above prison savings.”
The campaign is aimed at changing sentencing for low-level and nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors and uses that money to fund other priorities.
Proponents of the proposition argue that this would prevent the wasting of prison space on low-level nonviolent crimes. They argue, “[It] changes the lowest level nonviolent drug possession and petty theft crimes from felonies to simple misdemeanors. It authorizes resentencing for anyone who is incarcerated for these offenses and poses no threat to public safety. These changes apply to juveniles as well as adults.”
Furthermore, it “keeps rapists, murderers and child molesters in prison” by maintaining current laws for registered sex offenders and anyone with prior convictions for rape, murder or child molestation.
They argue that it “[S]tops government waste and redirects hundreds of millions from prison spending to K-12 and treatment: California counties will save hundreds of millions annually and state prison reductions will generate between $750 million to $1.25 billion in savings over the next five years alone. Those savings will be shifted into K-12 school programs (25%), victim services (10%) and mental health and drug treatment (65%).”
Furthermore, it protects public safety by focusing “law enforcement resources on violent and serious crimes, and directs savings to programs that stop the cycle of crime. Prisoners may only be released if they demonstrate that they are no longer a threat to public safety.”
And finally it “reduces the collateral consequences of felony convictions for low-level crime: Reduces the barriers that many with felony convictions for low-level nonviolent crimes face to becoming stable and productive citizens, such as employment, housing and access to assistance programs and professional trades.”
But critics, like the Sacramento Bee editorial board, argue that it “goes too far, too soon after other major criminal justice system changes.”
Following the AB 109 changes, the Bee writes that while “law enforcement officials still are adjusting to the new order, voters are being called upon to decide Proposition 47, an initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot that would reduce penalties for people who commit certain nonviolent crimes and drug offenses including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine possession.”
They urge a no vote, “in part because police and prosecutors are grappling with the landmark 2011 criminal justice realignment law that shifted responsibility for handling lower-level offenders to the counties.”
They note that voters approved a 2012 initiative reducing sentences for individuals who previously would have been sent to prison for decades under the 1994 “three-strikes” initiative.
“The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board supported those changes. We also have called for reductions in the state prison population. But while the number of inmates has started to tick up to 120,000, it remains far below the 165,000 it was in 2006,” they argue.
They note that the Legislative Analyst’s Office, “an impartial arbiter of ballot measures, notes that 220,000 people are convicted of felonies each year in California. If voters approve Proposition 47, about 40,000 offenders a year would be affected, facing misdemeanors rather than felonies, the analyst estimates. Those 40,000 criminals either would serve time in county jails or spend no significant time behind bars. Additionally, Proposition 47 would result in the resentencing and potential release of as many as 9,000 inmates now in state prison.”
The Bee also argues, “The change is unnecessary. Prosecutors already have the discretion to charge repeat felons with felonies or misdemeanors for minor crimes.”
However, they fail to note that, in counties like Yolo, prosecutors routinely charge these crimes as felonies and are only forced to reduce the charges to misdemeanors by judges on rare occasions, such as when they charge an individual for a felony for stealing a candy bar or other minor items.
The initiative’s backers include San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, the ACLU of Northern California, California Democratic Party and various philanthropists, the Bee notes. “Liberal billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center donated $1.2 million to the Yes-on-47 campaign, and long has supported reduced drug penalties and legalization. The Republican owner of Public Storage, B. Wayne Hughes, gave $750,000, and similarly believes society imprisons too many people.”
Opponents, who have raised little money, include organizations that represent district attorneys, police chiefs and sheriffs. The Bee writes, “They make a compelling case that this proposal could hurt public safety in cities that are struggling with gun violence, especially the state’s poorest neighborhoods.”
They say that, among its flaws, the initiative would redefine grand theft so that “theft of a firearm could only be considered a felony if the value of the gun is greater than $950.”
“Gascón, the initiative’s main proponent, disputes that claim, noting there are multiple ways to charge people in possession of concealed weapons with felonies,” they write. “Critics might be exaggerating their claims. It is, after all, a campaign. But if they are right, and the measure is flawed, Proposition 47 would be hard to fix. Legislators could alter its provisions only if they were reducing penalties, and then only by a two-thirds vote.”
They continue, “We don’t doubt that some people in prison could live peaceably on the outside, and that some sentences are too long. The Bee’s editorial board long has urged a thoughtful review of sentences. But that work ought to be done by a sentencing commission established by the governor and legislators. With few exceptions, the blunt instrument that is the initiative process should not be used to alter the criminal justice system.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting