Last week I had a few opportunities to go into the courts here in Yolo County and to see how Prop. 47 would work. It is too early to see the hearings for those serving time who are now eligible to be resentenced under Prop. 47.
What we did see was how Prop. 47 was initially going to be handled in the courts, against people who were originally charged with felony possession, but then had their charges reduced to misdemeanors.
Most of the cases that I saw involved people who were not currently in custody – so they either made bail or were out on their own recognizance. Even in cases where all of the charges were reduced to misdemeanors, they were keeping those cases in the same courtroom and not moving them to a misdemeanor courtroom.
Obviously, the reduction to misdemeanors has several immediate impacts on the cases – those that were awaiting preliminary hearings now no longer are required to have preliminary hearings. Bail is reduced, as is exposure. Ultimately, will these cases be more likely to settle out and less likely to go to trial? Probably.
But what is the ultimate result of Prop. 47? No one really knows. I overheard one defense attorney arguing that there would be a much bigger impact in Yolo County than elsewhere. That is because Yolo County practically charges all of these cases which are wobblers as felonies.
When the AB 109 data came out a few years ago, the Vanguard did analysis which showed that Yolo County, which had a crime rate in the middle tier, had the fourth largest per capita prison population in the state.
I have now seen data showing the Yolo County will have the third highest rate of Prop. 47 resentencings in the state, again per capita, just behind Stanislaus and Kings counties, and ahead of Kern, Lake, Riverside, Tehama, Los Angeles and Butte.
The question is, how is the system going to respond to these changes? The immediate impact will be a reduction in the number of felony cases – drug and mainly petty theft charges that were felonies will now be misdemeanors.
That means that a lot of these cases that ended up going to preliminary hearing and then ultimately pleading out will get resolved much earlier and more quickly.
As we can see by the data above, Yolo County had the third highest rate in the state when it came to incarcerating offenders for Prop. 47 crimes to state prison. The voters clearly passed Prop. 47 because they believed we were wasting resources on relatively small crimes, recognizing that incarceration for these crimes is both costly and ineffective.
The data clearly match the perception of Yolo County as being tough on relatively minor crimes.
So where does this go? Well, I think district attorneys are creative enough to find ways to make some of these cases be felonies. They probably won’t do it for everyone, however, only those with long histories of dangerous crimes that do not reach the level of crime required by Prop. 47 to nullify misdemeanor charges.
Second, I expect a lot of court time and resources will be freed up. We have basically created a system of plea agreements because there is not enough time or resources to take every case to trial.
So, for more serious felonies that do not fall within the Prop. 47 rubric, I expect to see fewer cases pleading out, more cases going to preliminary hearing and possibly trial, and tougher offers for plea agreements.
Everything is a bit of balancing act, but a lot of the sponsors of Prop. 47 did so out of the belief that we should focus law enforcement resources on the most serious crime. I am not sure we are going to get there in one fell swoop. I see openings for both charging Prop. 47 offenders with felony crimes as well as the potential that the next tier of cases simply get tougher plea agreements.
The data on AB 109 are more mixed in terms of impact. There seemed to be a small uptick in the crime rate in the first year or so of AB 109, followed by a resumption of the decline in the crime rate that has occurred since the 1970s.
A lot of people have argued that three strikes works because of the drop in crime rate, but they ignore the fact that crime rates really began to drop more than a decade before three strikes, and they occurred across the nation regardless of local laws.
Moreover, one of the problems with looking at data on AB 109 is that there were multiple factors that occurred simultaneously. In addition to AB 109, you saw a number of communities facing bankruptcy and forced to cut back on police – that seems more likely to account for the uneven pattern of criminal rising and falling after AB 109, which shows that crimes rates varied widely by location.
One place where the crime rate has increased has been Davis. Why would crime rates increase in Davis? Is it the presence of more of these low level offenders released under AB 109? Possibly. Or it may just be that Davis has seen demographic shifts in the last decade and crime rates are moving more toward where they should be.
Or it is possible that, in an area with low levels of crime, small shifts can produce measurable impacts?
Certainly AB 109 and Prop. 47 will change charging policies in a county that is notorious for its hardline stances, and how that will affect crime rates over time remains to be seen.
—David M. Greenwald reporting