It was seen as a chance for a clean slate and a remedy for California’s overcrowded prisons and jails. Proposition 47 allowed current and ex-felons with nonviolent theft and drug possession offenses to petition to have their crimes reclassified as misdemeanors.
Petitioners jumped at the opportunity, applying for resentencing and reclassification in a wave that flooded courthouses across California by the tens of thousands – more than 200,000 petitions and applications were filed in the 13 months after voters approved Proposition 47 in November 2014, including more than 10,000 in Sacramento Superior Court, according to the state’s Judicial Council.
We’re like a MASH unit. We look for ways to increase efficiency … but it’s been a nightmare. The impact on smaller counties feels like it’s been a major impact because we’re so small.
Jeff Reisig, Yolo County district attorney
Now a Judicial Council report that examined the early impacts of Proposition 47 on workload in California’s court system has exposed issues from the need to steer resources to handle Proposition 47 cases to the added layers of complexity the ballot measure laid over felony and misdemeanor cases.
The Judicial Council’s report, “Proposition 47 in the Courts: Workload Impacts,” eyed the impacts of Proposition 47 on court operations, using online surveys, phone interviews in nine California counties and site visits to courthouses in Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara and Shasta counties to interview judges, court workers and others in the justice system.
Officials across the legal community say they are feeling the strain of bearing the added caseload.
“We continue to juggle petitions, but we can’t continue to keep the balls in the air,” said Shawn Landry, Yolo Superior Court executive officer. “One of the many ones is going to fall at any given time.”
Under Proposition 47, felony filings decreased, but “the real cost is in man-hours. It’s a huge cost and no one has been able to accurately assess the cost savings,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Marjorie Koller, the point person in a court whose thousands of Proposition 47 filings trail only San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. “It’s far more complex than anyone had any notion of.”
California’s courts received about $27 million during the current fiscal year to help address the costs of resentencing connected with Proposition 47, according to the Judicial Council. Another $21.4 million has been proposed in the governor’s 2016-2017 draft budget, the council said.
Koller’s downtown Sacramento courtroom is the county’s hub for Proposition 47 cases. About 5,000 Proposition 47 petitions and applications have landed there since November 2014. She has enlisted a retired clerk to help plow through the paper, but it remains painstaking work.
For those who are benefiting from the law, it means a lot – many now have a ‘clean slate’ and are able to find work and change their lives, despite making mistakes in their youth.
Karen Flynn, Sacramento County chief assistant public defender
Koller reviews the sentences of each petitioner to see if they qualify to be resentenced or have their charges reduced. Oftentimes, a petitioner’s multiple charges make the reviews more complex. Minute orders are filed for each petition with copies going to the county prosecutor and to the jail or prison where the inmate is being held.
Not all petitions are granted. Koller said as of the end of February, she had granted about 3,000 petitions but denied about 1,800.
Across the street at the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Robin Shakely handles Proposition 47 cases.
Shakely receives petitions, calls for rap sheets, probation reports and court files, reads the petitions for disqualifications such as sex crimes and murders, looks at specific offenses to determine eligibility. Her office then files motions with the court explaining why the person is or isn’t eligible for resentencing or reclassification. The motions are then sent to the county’s public defender or private attorney and the court, which rules on the motion.
“It takes a lot of paperwork. What makes you eligible or ineligible is a moving target,” Shakely said. How charges are determined to be felony or misdemeanor adds more complexity, she said.
But Sacramento County worked quickly after the 2014 ballot measure passed to streamline how Proposition 47 cases are handled, assigning one judge, one prosecutor and one public defender, Chief Assistant Public Defender Karen Flynn, to the cases.
“Cheaper, better, faster” is the result, said Flynn, who has worked for years alongside Koller and counterpart Shakely, and says their mutual trust built over the decades has been key.
A standing court order that went into effect last August appoints the county’s public defender to all Proposition 47 cases. Flynn devised a single-sheet form to screen applicants, asking them to list their prior convictions, whether their theft offense exceeded Proposition 47’s $950 threshold and whether their rap sheet contains sex crimes or other violent offenses.
Sacramento County probation, Sheriff’s Department, district attorney and Sacramento Superior Court each refer clients to Flynn.
“They say, ‘Go talk to Karen Flynn,’ ” Flynn said. “If you spread it all around, you lose efficiency.”
She has become an ambassador of sorts for Proposition 47 filings, talking to those with criminal records at area churches, community centers and at “Clean Slate Clinics,” where people with criminal histories can find out more about Proposition 47 eligibility, calling the workload connected to the ballot measure “much to do about nothing.”
“Courts and the district attorney and the public defender offices should gladly ensure laws and rights are realized in an orderly way, even if it means more work,” Flynn said via email. “For those who are benefiting from the law, it means a lot – many now have a ‘clean slate’ and are able to find work and change their lives, despite making mistakes in their youth.”
Koller believes Sacramento County has saved itself headaches by streamlining the process. Other counties, she said, have multiple people across multiple courtrooms handling the cases, each offering different opinions on Proposition 47 cases. Still other counties demand that petitioners appear before the judge at the courthouse where the sentence was originally handed down.
“We worked out a lot of things. Being in one court, we’ve waived the provision to hear (the petition) before the original judge. It’s helped us in terms of streamlining,” Koller said, “The man-hours we put in are extraordinary, but we have streamlined it.”
In Yolo County, officials there are hoping for a breather, calling Proposition 47 a well-intentioned, but taxing, strain on limited resources.
“We’re hoping the (numbers of) filings will flatten,” said Landry, whose courthouse staff has received about 2,000 Proposition 47 filings atop of the 40,000 criminal and civil filings it gets annually. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty paper-intensive.”
Jeff Reisig, Yolo County district attorney, doesn’t mince words. He is a vocal opponent of Proposition 47 and the strain it puts on his and other small county district attorney’s offices.
He likens the work on the filings to “an extensive research project,” says his five secretaries, who dedicate two hours each day to working through the paper and talks about his assistant chief’s desk stacked high with petitions.
“We’re not getting money for 47. The petitions process requires a significant amount of work. We’ve definitely seen an increase in the complexity of the caseload,” Reisig said. “We’re like a MASH unit. We look for ways to increase efficiency … but it’s been a nightmare. The impact on smaller counties feels like it’s been a major impact because we’re so small.”
In Sacramento, prosecutor Shakely is more sanguine.
“That’s the will of the people, and we’re doing our best to implement it. We do the best we can with the present resources,” she said. “We’re not bursting at the seams. We’re government workers. We absorb it and do it.”