Vanguard Analysis: Jeff Adachi Discusses Whether Prop. 47 Ends Mass Incarceration

Jeff Adachi receives the Vanguard Social Justice Award in November 2013

Last week voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47, which reduces drug and petty theft crimes to misdemeanors. On Monday, the Vanguard noted the impact of Prop. 47 on the Yolo County DA’s practice of charging small petty thefts as felonies no matter how small, if they can justify it based on past record.

Milena Black, the Policy and Legislative Advocate for Californians for Safety and Justice, a non-profit that seeks to reduce prison and justice system waste, told the Vanguard that taking a case to a preliminary hearing alone costs about $1000 per case, based on research from the State Senate Appropriations Committee.

“That’s over $1000 down the drain because someone stole a candy bar, that’s not a good use of our criminal justice resources,” she said. “We would rather see that money spent prosecuting someone who committed serious and violent crimes.”

In a local op-ed, Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson wrote, “For decades, California has relied on the mass incarceration of its offenders as the answer to crime control, no matter the crime.

“By 2011, state prisons were so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court found that the problem amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment. The problem of prison overcrowding persists today while California taxpayers spend upwards of $60,000 to house a single inmate in state prison for one year.”

The question is does Prop. 47’s passage end mass incarceration? The Vanguard spoke to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the only elected public defender in the state.

“It’s huge,” Jeff Adachi told the Vanguard. “We estimate as many as 10,000 cases may be affected.”

“What Prop. 47 does is declare certain categories of low level felony crimes to be only misdemeanors. Many of these crimes were what we referred to in legal jargon as wobblers – meaning that the case could be charged by prosecutors either as a felony or misdemeanor,” he explained.

Possession of most controlled substances, prior to Prop. 47’s passage, is considered a felony. It is now a misdemeanor for all purposes. For petty theft and forgery, so long as the value of the crime involved is less than $950, it will be treated as a misdemeanor.

What this means is two things, Jeff Adachi said. First, “The prosecutors will no longer have the discretion to charge these crimes as felonies.” Going forward, “most of the changes will occur at the charging stage.”

People who have already been convicted of felonies – possession, petty theft with a prior, forgery – “these crimes would qualify to be reduced to misdemeanors provided certain conditions were met.”

“Any case where the person was tried and convicted of any of the Prop. 47 offenses as felonies, they can apply to have that reduced to a misdemeanor,” he said, stating that if the person was convicted of a serious and violent felony previously, they would be unable to be released. These are limited to murder and serious sexual assault crimes.

Jeff Adachi disagrees that this will create an increase in crime. He said, “The same argument was made about realignment; actually we’ve seen crime rates plummet in most counties with the release of people who were in the state prison system to local counties.”

He noted, “A person who is charged with these offenses still faces up to one year in the county jail, which is a significant penalty. However, they don’t suffer the consequences of being convicted of a felony.”

Mr. Adachi pointed out, “Studies have shown and certainly my experience is that when the person is convicted of a felony, it’s much harder for them to lead productive lives. It creates a disincentive to hire the person for a job and makes it difficult for them to qualify for public benefits.” He added, “This is a step in the right direction.”

“What this does is it allows people who are charged with low-level offenses to [have the offenses] treated as misdemeanors,” he continued. That means instead of prison time, they would get a county jail sentence where “many of the rehabilitative services are available to misdemeanor and not felony clients.”

Moreover, Prop. 47 “takes the money that would have been spent incarcerating low-level offenders and instead invests that money in education, rehabilitation and victim services.”

That money would be set aside and left up to each county to decide how to use that money. He explained that San Francisco, where he works, already has a lot of programs. He believes that San Francisco would use that money to create additional treatment slots for people in drug treatment programs.

The key thing, he said: “If you treat the core cause of criminality, the person won’t come back.”

So does this mark the end of mass incarceration in California?

“It’s the beginning,” Jeff Adachi stated. However, he mentioned that there are many other reforms that need to be put in place.

“Unfortunately, in California we have not had comprehensive sentencing reform,” he said. “We tried to push the governor to form a sentencing commission that could make binding recommendations as to how the sentencing laws could be changed.”

Governor Brown, during his first term as governor, presided over reform of the penal code and determinative sentencing, which Jeff Adachi argued “in many ways put us in the situation that we’re in now.”

“I’m hoping that the governor, in particular since he’s in his second term, is going to focus on sentencing reform,” Mr. Adachi added.

Last spring at his annual Justice Summit, one of the panels had a discussion on bail reform, which Jeff Adachi argues is needed to clear up a clear-cut bias in the system.

“The presumption of innocence in this country is meaningless because for most of our clients who are poor people, they are incarcerated pending their trials,” he said. “It places much more pressure on them for innocent people to plead guilty. It creates a disincentive for cases to be fully investigated and litigated.”

“It’s also unfair because people who are released from jail are simply those who have money. You can get out on bail if you’re charged with murder if you have the money,” he said. “And yet if you’re charged with criminal trespass, and you don’t have $500 to post bail, you’re going to be in jail.”

Jeff Adachi believes we need to move away from money bail and implement the types of reforms that New Jersey and Maryland have instituted.

He said in San Francisco, they are litigating every case where their client might be eligible for bail “because we feel that under the law, clients are entitled to a full bail hearing.” He added, “Judges have to understand what presumption of innocence means.”

In San Francisco, 85 percent of the jail is filled with people in pretrial custody, awaiting their trial. In many cases, these are people who will never be sentenced to additional custody as the disposition of their case.

Another problem with bail, Mr. Adachi indicated, is that they are unequal across county lines. He cited that in Santa Clara the bail for assault is about $10,000. “In San Francisco, the bail for the same crime is $75,000,” he said. “So you have these huge disparities in the amount of bail.”

This is the second in a series of articles that will look into the impact of Prop. 47. Tomorrow’s segment will examine how Prop. 47 will impact things on a local level.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    interesting point: “Jeff Adachi disagrees that this will create an increase in crime. He said, “The same argument was made about realignment; actually we’ve seen crime rates plummet in most counties with the release of people who were in the state prison system to local counties.””

    i don’t understand why people think this is going to explode the crime rate.

  2. Anon

    “Jeff Adachi disagrees that this will create an increase in crime. He said, “The same argument was made about realignment; actually we’ve seen crime rates plummet in most counties with the release of people who were in the state prison system to local counties.”

    From the Public Policy Institute of CA:

    “We find that California’s crime rates increased between 2011 and 2012 – violent crime went up 3.4% and property crime went up 7.6%.”

    For full report:


    1. Robert Canning

      Although crime rates have gone up as the PPI report notes (including in San Francisco) – the following paragraph also notes that they remain at historic lows – both property and violent crime rates are more than 20% lower than a decade ago. As the legislature continues to provide funds for counties to deal with increased probation caseloads, jail expansion, and other programs, the spike in crime because of the hasty rollout of AB109 will probably (IMO) subside. There have already been some adjustments to AB109 both legislatively and via the Governor’s proposals.

      The state prison system is a sinkhole for taxpayer’s dollars. If we can improve programs to treat offenders so they do not re-offend, and additionally stop using the prison system as a mental hospital, we may begin to turn the corner on mass incarceration.

        1. Davis Progressive

          you’re looking at old data.  current data show that while there was an increase 2011 to 2012, there was a decrease in 2012 to 2013 – currently crime rate is lower than 2010.  violent crime is at its history low and property crime dropped from 2012 and is only slightly higher than 2010.  murder and rape are at their historic lows.  so you’re criticizing adachi using data statistics.

      1. Davis Progressive

        the bottom line here is that ab 109 was a far bigger change than prop 47.  it only had a small one-year impact on the crime rate and then crime continued on its previous trajectory.  i think that is very telling for those who claim that prop 47 is going to lead to a massive increase in crime.

      2. TrueBlueDevil

        Prisons as a sinkhole for money, we can thank Democrat Gray Davis for that and his huge pay raises for prison guards.

        The political calculus I’ve always figured was the prison guards unions gave Gray Davis millions, so he paid them back with their massive raise, and thought he was on the way to the White House. So he got 2 out of 3, and we’re saddled with the debt and pension obligations.

  3. Miwok

    When do the criminals, after their release and counseling, have a change of heart for “possession, petty theft with a prior, forgery” and make restitution for their offenses, and commit to never do it again? Instead, public funds are heading the wrong direction. If you make the victims whole, something I have never seen from my own experience it might be better? Letting the felons back out, something I have seen, to continue their pathetic habits and crimes is incredible.

    The generosity of my tax dollars is amazing! When the people arguing this point have a spare room ready for the criminals in their homes, next to their kids, and take them in, then I might believe these people are sincere.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “When do the criminals, after their release and counseling, have a change of heart for “possession, petty theft with a prior, forgery” and make restitution for their offenses, and commit to never do it again?”

      sounds like you a restorative justice component, sounds good.  but statistically, nothing works better to prevent crimes than jobs, job training, education.

      “The generosity of my tax dollars is amazing! ”

      the waste of your tax dollars is amazing, $60K per year on people who have stolen a few hundred or have a small amount of drugs.  you should be outraged about that.

      1. Miwok

        Thank you for your comment.

        I find as many crooked people in honest jobs as in prison. To me they are not better or worse. All of them are sorry they get caught. I could save a lot of that 60K per year, but you would not like pink underwear…

        Give me back the thousands people have stolen from me, or the heirlooms that had sentimental value. It was not theirs to take. If we can agree on that, we have a conversation. Telling me “they had a small amount of drugs” does not get me to agree with you.

        I hope you have a spare bedroom for them to arrive with their “small amount of drugs” to hang out with your family while you find them work and useful lives.

        1. Davis Progressive

          “I hope you have a spare bedroom for them to arrive with their “small amount of drugs” to hang out with your family while you find them work and useful lives.”

          i’ve done my share in this regard.

    2. TrueBlueDevil

      Give them a job cleaning freeways as part of a work detail. Then flip them over to the graffiti detail.

      It seems like we continue to be soft on crime. I read a story today of a woman from the Central Coast who embezzled over $30,000 from her previous employer (she was the bookkeeper). She was going to be charged with 3 felonies for embezzlement of $950 or more. She plead guilty to one felony, gets probation, and has to pay back $10,000 a year to her former employer, a construction company, for 3 years.

      The kicker is she opened a book keeping business right next door to her former employer, and she has shown no remorse.

  4. Clem Kadiddlehopper

    While I was sitting on the toilet intently reading the Davis Vanguard blog on my Tablet PC and thinking about this proposition 47 debacle, all of a sudden I had this MASSIVE brain fart of an idea!!  Instead of giving these criminals free passes, why not require them to serve in our nations’ military? We could even have their records expunged if they serve 4 years in our military without screwing up. Just think, after they get out, if they still have drug problems or mental issues, the V.A. could pay for it, and the Banana Republic of California would be off the hook.

    1. Miwok

      I went through Basic training with a bunch of Detroit’s finest – screwups!! Thanks for the memories! Lots of guys turned things around for themselves, and the biggest motivator was the distance away from their peeps. If they went back home, they did not always do it.

      1. Clem Kadiddlehopper

        We should employ drill instructors in ALL of our county jails. This in itself would have a positive impact on our jail population. Boy, wouldn’t the squishy brained liberals have a field day with that idea!!
         I remember sitting in a courtroom in Arizona as an observer back in the 60’s (I did that a lot when I was a porch monkey) and listening to the county judge say “Boy, you have one of two choices. Enlist in the military or go to prison”.  And 90% of the time they chose the military.

      2. TrueBlueDevil

        I know a young man who was given the same choice here, he ended up in the Marines. He now has a small business, works very hard, and is an upstanding citizen.

    1. David Greenwald

      There is nothing conservative about that statement, it’s the basis behind retraining and rehabilitation which have long been liberal views on crime prevention.

        1. Frankly

          It is a valid point.  Both politicians have made it more difficult to start and run a business.  And both oppose the type of immigration reform that would lead to a greater demand for employees doing the type of work that a convicted criminal could do.  In fact the have really displaced American criminals with illegal immigrant criminals.

          How might a job in construction help rehabilitate a convicted criminal?

      1. TrueBlueDevil

        But then there is the Marxist view that poverty causes crime. I don’t recall reading about a lot of crime during the Great Depression.

        “How might a job in construction help rehabilitate a convicted criminal?”

        Idle hands are the work of the devil. Keep them busy, engaged, and tired. With a decent-paying construction job – if we squeezed down on the Supply of illegal immigration – then these men would also be more likely to get married, taming the savage beast.

  5. WesC

    Texas, which went down the road of prison reform years ago uses risk-assessment and better probation procedures than California to divert large numbers of nonviolent offenders away from the prison system, keeping them away from hard-core criminals. It involves strict implementation of victim-restitution measures, while offering alternatives to prison such as civil sanctions, drug courts and drug-abuse and mental health treatment. It also offers rehabilitation programs like job training for those in prison to prepare them to re-enter society. Texas also invested heavily in reducing the caseloads of parole and probation officers so the state can keep better track of the people it supervises and help them move in a new direction.
    It’s paying off. Texas has closed three state prisons, and almost two-thirds of Texas parolees are employed. In California, 80 percent of parolees are unemployed – meaning that Texas parolees are three times as likely to have a job. That’s a big step forward on the path to becoming a taxpayer and living a stable life.

      1. Don Shor

        Prison reform in Texas began under Ann Richards, the last good governor of the state.

        As governor, Richards reformed the Texas prison system, establishing a substance abuse program for inmates, reducing the number of violent offenders released, and increasing prison space to deal with a growing prison population (from less than 60,000 in 1992 to more than 80,000 in 1994).

        Here’s an interesting article on the subject:

  6. Biddlin

    It is a disgrace, particularly on Veterans’ Day, to suggest that criminals be injected into the ranks of the fine young people serving us today. It was a bad idea in Viet Nam and worse now.


    1. David Greenwald

      Not sure it’s a disgrace, but I don’t see it as being a viable solution. We already have a class of people who come out of the military with a host of mental health problems which have inadequate treatment, we really want to add to that?

      1. Frankly

        David – you are demonstrating some pretty troubling bias with this statement.  The military has no more of less mental health problems than does the general population.  If you are talking about PSD, that is a completely different issue.

        You might want to educate yourself and interview someone that recruits for the military.  Have so much as a pot possession charge, and it is likely you will be rejected.  And don’t even think about having a tattoo that cannot be covered by regulation clothing.   The bar for being accepted into the military these days is pretty high.  And many more of the jobs are technical and require strong language skills and technical aptitude.

        There is competition for positions in the armed forces.  Look at a soldier today and you are looking at some of America’s best and brightest.

        Criminals cannot compete with other candidates because of their record of bad behavior.

        1. David Greenwald

          My statement was pretty narrow “a class of people” “who come out of the military” “with a host of mental health problems which have inadequate treatment”. I did not state that there is a pervasive problem in the military with mental illness or that it is more or less than the general population. You have taken a very limited statement and extrapolated rather broadly reading into a host of things I never said or intended to say.

  7. Themis

    After reading the above story and then some of the comments that follow it, it seems that some people don’t understand the meaning of the article’s first sentence.

    Last week voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47, which reduces drug and petty theft crimes to misdemeanors.

    Reducing drug and petty crimes to misdemeanors would bring them back to where they were  before the tough on crime mentality. These people should have never have gone to prison in the first place.

    1. Miwok

      “These people should have never have gone to prison in the first place.”

      Should I send them to your house to rent a room when they get out? Since you think these criminals, many plea bargained to the lowest crime, and still sent to prison, are the quality of people you want to be around you?

      Apparently even the quality people of Davis and surrounding areas think Crime is a forgivable expense, and somehow they are immune from the grief of losing things. Many of these criminals, several time offenders by your own conversation, still have not done enough to anger you into keeping them away from you and yours.

      When your kids dress like a pimp and a ho, and take your car and property, you will claim they are “good kids” who didn’t mean to hurt you or anyone else. And when you bury them because someone defended their life and property in some misguided attempt to keep themselves alive against these kids, what will you do?

      My apologies of this offends you, because it starts with parents who think the kid will “get it”. Some day they will.

      1. Davis Progressive

        “When your kids dress like a pimp and a ho…”

        yeah it offends me… in davis, a lot of kids that dress like pimps and hoes, my daughter says you must be in your 30s or 40s, get straight a’s and go to stanford and berkeley.

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