By Jason KUROSU
Proposition 47 seeks to reduce prison sentences for numerous inmates across the state by reclassifying as misdemeanors certain drug possession offenses and other crimes considered felonies. Among these are a series of crimes when the total amount involved is less than $950, including petty theft, receiving stolen property, forging or writing bad checks and shoplifting.
The measure would also ensure that none of the offenders of the crimes be sent to state prison. Instead, those offenders would serve lesser sentences at the county level. Misdemeanors require a maximum of one year in prison.
Offenders currently serving felony sentences could apply for resentencing under the measure’s tenets, so that they could attempt to have their conviction changed to a misdemeanor. Resentencing and having felonies considered misdemeanors would be at the discretion of the judge and would not be permitted for individuals with prior convictions of “violent and serious” offenses including murder, rape, child molestation and robbery.
A Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund would also be created, with the estimated savings from lowered prison costs going to mental health and drug abuse treatment services, victim services grants and grants intended to reduce drop-out and truancy rates at K-12 schools.
Supporters of the measure say Prop 47 will not only reduce prison sentences for nonviolent offenders that are too lengthy, but also reduce recidivism.
Lenore Anderson, executive director of Vote Safe, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit that is supporting Prop 47, said “The use of community corrections – such as mental health and drug treatment, supervised probation and the like – for low-level offenses should reduce recidivism rates more than incarceration traditionally has.”
Anderson said the effect has been seen in other parts of the country.
“Texas, New York and New Jersey are a few states that have reduced incarceration rates in recent years and seen a corresponding reduction in recidivism and crime rates. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia all treat simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, and several other states have thresholds for property crime misdemeanors at far higher amounts than the modest proposal in Prop 47,” she said. “And here in California, Contra Costa County is an example of how a move toward more supervised probation for non-violent people has resulted in lower rates of jail incarceration, recidivism and crime compared to other counties.”
But opponents, many who are law enforcement affiliates, contend that Prop 47 will free many dangerous criminals and does little to actually help low-level offenders.
Robert Monsour, a spokesperson from the Alliance for a Safer California, spoke on what they felt were problematic and unnecessary about the measure.
“In reality, Prop 47 does almost nothing for true low-level offenders. It wasn’t designed to. When you and I think of a low-level offender, we think of someone with no history of violence, and no history of committing dangerous crimes like residential burglary or stealing a handgun. Most voters don’t realize that California law already prohibits sending these types of offenders to state prison.”
Opponents are also concerned with some of the crimes that would be reduced to misdemeanor status.
“Prop 47 will make it impossible to stop many criminals from legally possessing guns. Under current law, convicted felons can’t possess firearms in California. By changing street crimes like purse snatching, daytime commercial burglary, and gun theft into misdemeanors, Prop 47 ensures criminals convicted of these and many other offenses can continue to legally buy and own guns,” said Monsour.
Opponents have also expressed concern that there would be a reduction of sentences for those caught with possession of date rape drugs. But Anderson said that those individuals would still be convicted as felons under Prop 47.
“The opposition has misled the public on how these offenses would be charged and sentenced,” Anderson said. “That’s why prosecutors, judges and crime survivor groups endorse Prop 47. Additionally, by investing in trauma recovery services for crime victims, Prop. 47 helps police and prosecutors apprehend perpetrators of sexual assault and other violent crimes.”
Opponents say that an overstated result of Prop 47 is the amount of money saved from reduced prison costs.
“It’s important to remember that California spends only about 7.6% of its budget on corrections and rehabilitation,” Monsour said. “It’s a small piece of the pie that serves a very important purpose – keeping criminals who steal, cheat, hurt, and abuse people off the streets. The Legislative Analyst estimates savings in the ‘low hundreds of millions’ if Prop 47 passes, which represents less than 1% of California’s 2014 budget. Voters will need to decide if saving this relatively small amount of money – instead of investing in public safety and corrections – is worth the increases in crime we are likely to experience.”