It was the clearest signal to date that Californians are fed up with the growing costs and ineffectiveness of mass incarceration. Following the passage of Prop. 36 in 2012, which reduced third strike status for non-violent and non-dangerous offenses, Prop. 47 went a step forward by reducing 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.
Despite a series of attacks from law enforcement groups that perhaps oversold their case in warning that handgun thefts would be charged as misdemeanors, the voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. 47 by an over 850,000 vote margin, 58.5 to 41.5 percent.
Opponents argued, “Prop. 47 would eliminate automatic felony prosecution for stealing a gun. Under current law, stealing a gun is a felony, period. Prop. 47 would redefine grand theft in such a way that theft of a firearm could only be considered a felony if the value of the gun is greater than $950. Almost all handguns (which are the most stolen kind of firearm) retail for well below $950. People don’t steal guns just so they can add to their gun collection. They steal guns to commit another crime. People stealing guns are protected under Proposition 47.”
However, voters rejected that logic.
“The overwhelming support for this reform sends a powerful message nationally, demonstrating that voters are not just ready but eager to reduce prison populations in ways that can enhance public safety,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, part of a coalition of groups supporting the measure.
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.”
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.
“For decades, California has relied on the mass incarceration of its offenders as the answer to crime control, no matter the crime,” Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson wrote in an op-ed. “Despite the high cost, prisons offer little to no meaningful rehabilitation programs to offenders. Not surprisingly, recidivism rates consistently hover around the 70 percent mark, meaning that seven out of 10 inmates released from state prison are back behind bars within three years.
“Under current law, most simple drug possession and petty theft offenses are punishable by up to three years in state prison, with a $60,000 price tag attached to each year of incarceration. However, at a 70 percent recidivism rate, the current system has created a costly revolving door that cycles offenders in and out of prison without any deterrent or rehabilitative effect.” She wrote, “Proposition 47 seeks to change the state-incarceration-for-all paradigm by reducing to misdemeanors the lowest-level crimes.”
On the other hand, Davis Police Chief Landy Black argued, “It is my professional opinion that if Prop. 47 passes, the results would be bad for law-abiding citizens, businesses and property owners, and entirely contrary to my and the Davis Police Department’s crime prevention and community safety efforts.”
The voters clearly were willing to take the risk that Prop. 47 would reduce the ability for Drug Courts to work, and by reducing penalties for theft under $950, risk that handgun thefts could fall into a misdemeanor category.
It will be very interesting to see how these new charging policies will impact the local judicial system.
—David M. Greenwald reporting