For decades, California voters have been asked to make tough decisions on how the state handles crime and punishment – from the death penalty to “three strikes” laws to the creation of drug-diversion programs.
Next month, they will be asked to decide the fate of yet another initiative aimed at changing the penalties some criminals face in court and, proponents say, saving the state millions in needless incarceration costs.
Proposition 47 is being touted as a common-sense measure that will reduce penalties for nonviolent property crimes such as shoplifting, drug possession or writing bad checks from felonies to misdemeanors.
Supporters say the reductions, coupled with a provision that allows felons already incarcerated for such crimes to ask to be resentenced, will save hundreds of millions of dollars a year, money that the initiative would funnel into mental health programs, victims services grants and anti-truancy measures.
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“The goal here is to create a sustainable public safety model for our state,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, an author of the measure, told an informational legislative hearing in Sacramento this month.
Critics say those claims are hogwash, that Proposition 47 instead will return more serious criminals to the streets and reduce felonies such as theft of a firearm or possession of date-rape drugs to misdemeanors.
“It’s hard to say for sure, but it could be catastrophic,” said Citrus Heights Police Chief Chris Boyd, who as the president of the California Police Chiefs Association has been campaigning against the measure. “Reducing a whole host of felonies to misdemeanors is not in the best interests of public safety.”
Californians will vote on the measure as the state’s approach to punishing crime is undergoing a dramatic change with court orders aimed at reducing prison overcrowding and Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan, which shifts responsibility for low-level, nonviolent criminals from the state to counties.
Under Proposition 47, that shift toward county responsibility would continue, with penalties for some crimes involving property worth $950 or less being reduced to misdemeanors – offenses that result in county jail time or community service rather than a prison term.
The measure would rewrite penalties for grand theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, check forgery and drug possession. For instance, shoplifting items worth $950 or less currently can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Proposition 47 would require the crime to be charged only as a misdemeanor.
The initiative would not allow penalties for such crimes to be reduced to misdemeanors if the defendants had past convictions for crimes such as murder, rape or child molestation.
The state’s legislative analyst estimates the measure, if passed, would affect about 40,000 defendants annually and that it could save costs “in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually” by reducing prison populations by thousands of inmates. Counties also could save “several hundred million dollars annually” through reduced jail populations, the legislative analyst concluded.
The measure’s supporters say the savings would be transferred annually to a special new fund that would direct 25 percent of the money to efforts combating truancy and school drop-out rates; 10 percent would go to grants for victim services programs; and 65 percent would pay for mental health and drug-abuse treatment programs.
The formal title of Proposition 47, The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, reflects the hope of proponents that voters will focus on what supporters tout as the benefits of the initiative, including a reduction in the amount of money spent on incarceration in favor of rehabilitation.
“The state spends more than ($9 billion) per year on the prison system,” supporters wrote in their ballot argument. “In the last 30 years California has built 22 new prisons but only one university.”
Proponents also note that the measure, backed by liberal groups and donors that include organized labor and Democratic groups, is drawing support from leading conservatives as well.
The largest single contributor in support of the measure is B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian and Malibu Republican who supports penal reform and has given more than $1.2 million. Hughes joined with fellow Republican and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in writing a September op-ed for the Los Angeles Times arguing that traditionally red states such as Texas and South Carolina have embraced reforms involving nonviolent offenders while California continues to spend billions on prisons.
“It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders,” they wrote.
But opponents, who include most police and prosecutor groups in the state, say the measure is so misguided and sloppily drafted that it could lead to serious increases in crime.
“This isn’t just a poorly written initiative,” opponents argue in a ballot statement against Proposition 47. “It is an invitation for disaster.”
The proposed reduction in penalties for firearm theft is a major point of contention. All firearms thefts currently are felonies, but under the measure they would become misdemeanors if the weapon is worth $950 or less, as many handguns are.
“Theft of a firearm was made a felony for a reason, and that is people don’t steal firearms for anything other than to commit a crime,” said Boyd, the Citrus Heights police chief. “I mean, they don’t steal them for their personal gun collection. This is nothing more than a slap on the wrist to steal a gun.”
Gascón rejects such arguments, saying “Proposition 47 maintains all felony prosecutions for gun-related crimes” because using the stolen weapon would still be a felony.
“If you steal a gun (and use it to commit a crime), you’re still going to be prosecuted for a felony,” he said.
The same dispute lingers over a proposal to reduce penalties for possession for personal use of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and date-rape drugs from felonies to misdemeanors. Penalties for such possession now can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the drug involved and the amount.
“Under this measure, such crimes would always be misdemeanors,” the legislative analyst concluded.
Gascón noted at the legislative hearing that “any use of a substance to commit date rape would continue to be a felony.” But Boyd argues that there is no reason for anyone to possess such a substance, that possession of date-rape drugs has “nothing to do with personal use, but as a weapon against someone.”
The outcome of the campaign may mirror the effort in 2012 to overturn the state’s death penalty, which was heavily funded by liberal groups and individuals but ultimately lost in a close vote as law enforcement leaders spoke out forcefully against it.
Proposition 47 has attracted large contributions from donors such as the Open Society Policy Center, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for civil rights and justice reforms and gave $1 million. Other supporters include civil rights attorney Molly Munger, who gave more than $325,000, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who contributed more than $246,000.
The largest single contribution reported by opponents was $230,000 from the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
Boyd said he hopes to counter the other side’s funding with the use of free media by law enforcement leaders warning the public against the measure. “I think at the end of the day, as Californians understand what this measure will be in terms of making our communities more dangerous, I don’t think they’ll vote for it,” Boyd said.
But supporters say California simply is spending too much on incarceration and should attempt to do better. “There has to be a better way, doesn’t there?” asked Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos.
Along with Gascón and Santa Clara County’s Jeff Rosen, Gallegos is one of only three DAs in the state to come out in support of Proposition 47.
“No matter how you look at it, we’re having to invest in these people, whether it’s at the front end with education and treatment, or on the back end after all the damage has been done to the cars that have been broken into, the houses that have been broken into,” Gallegos said. “It takes a lifetime for these people to recover, if at all.
“If we’re as committed to providing people treatment for using drugs as we are to providing a jail cell, we might seriously reduce crime.”
Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.