Criminal justice reform advocates on Wednesday hailed the passage of Proposition 47 as a landmark change in how California treats low-level offenders and said they believe it demonstrates the continued willingness of voters to move away from tough on crime policies and toward rehabilitation.
“It is a very significant chapter,” said former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. He pushed for the measure’s approval and was rewarded with a 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent victory in Tuesday’s statewide election.
“What it says is that people want their government to make a distinction in the public safety area between those who have to be locked up and those who can serve their sentence in less expensive, more humane and more effective ways,” Steinberg said. “That’s what the people want.”
But law enforcement leaders warned the electorate was fooled by a campaign that spent millions of dollars to promote a measure that they say can only serve to increase serious and violent crime in California.
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“I’m disappointed that it passed,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, one of the leading voices against the measure, which reduces charges for several property- and drug-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
“Proposition 47 will not eliminate crime; it has only reduced the consequences of crime,” Scully said. “When you reduce the consequences of crime, then there are some people who won’t be deterred from committing crime.”
Supporters of the measure – funded by a coalition of liberal groups and wealthy individuals from both ends of the political spectrum – dismissed such concerns, saying California is finally following a trend other states have adopted to fund more mental health care, education and treatment for offenders who should not be languishing in prisons.
“There’s a shift in the national consciousness … about crime and punishment, and I think that ‘smart on crime’ sort of captures the mood of the nation now,” said Allen Hopper, criminal justice and drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California. “It’s time to be smart, and not just enact harsher legislation. I think people realize that now.”
The ACLU poured $3.5 million into the campaign for Proposition 47, and Hopper said voters have signaled in recent elections that they’re willing to approve criminal reform measures that legislators are not willing to tackle.
In past years, votes to modify the state’s “three-strikes” law and one that nearly abolished the death penalty have shown Californians no longer believe that stiff penalties are the answer to reducing crime, he said, adding that more initiatives may be coming if legislators do not act on their own to reform sentencing laws.
“Proposition 47 is just the beginning,” Hopper said. “If they don’t do that, we go right back to the voters because they’ve demonstrated that they get it, and that they are ready for smart approaches to keeping communities safe by focusing on reducing recidivism and rehabilitation and not just punishment.”
The initiative rewrites penalties for crimes such as grand theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, check forgery and drug possession. Such crimes, if they involve items worth $950 or less, now only can be charged as misdemeanors, meaning the offender will not end up in state prison.
It also allows criminals who have served their time or who currently are in prison to petition a court to have their sentences or criminal records adjusted to remove their felony convictions. That portion of the initiative could affect as many as 10,000 inmates in prison. It does not apply to defendants with prior convictions for crimes such as murder, rape or child molestation.
Prosecutors now must go through their pending cases to see which ones need to be reclassified as misdemeanors and look at old cases that may be returned to court.
“Procedurally, we’re going to have to deal with the post-conviction side because there were people convicted of felonies who can come into court and ask that it be reduced to a misdemeanor,” Scully said. “Then there’s the people both in prison and out who will be taking advantage of that.
“Then there’s the pending cases that we’ll have to address, those who are charged with felonies.”
The change in the law will require an expansion of the number of people working misdemeanor cases in the Sacramento DA’s Office, Scully said. Currently, that workforce consists of seven prosecutors and five legal research assistants. Scully’s office estimates that within a year it will have 3,000 cases filed as misdemeanors that previously would have been charged as felonies.
She and others who opposed the measure said the very nature of the proposition is guaranteed to increase crime over time.
“Back in ’94, when I first ran, three strikes was on the ballot as well,” Scully said. “It’s because of strong laws that we were able to reduce our serious and violent crime.
“I believe that some people think, ‘Well, we’re doing fine, why do we need to continue to have these tough laws?’ My fear is it’s a pendulum that has gone way too far now with Proposition 47 to focusing on those who are accused of crime and commit crimes rather than those who are victims of crime.”
Sacramento attorney McGregor Scott, a former U.S. attorney and district attorney, said the measure’s passage and “the recent trend in California to lessen the penalties around crime is a very unfortunate thing.”
“Because of the tough measures that were passed by the Legislature and the people in the ’80s and ’90s, California today enjoys an all-time low violent crime rate,” Scott said. “The tough on crime approach resulted in a dramatic decrease in violent crime in this state. This is not complicated math. It’s cause and effect, and we’re going to reap the whirlwind in years to come for abandoning that approach to crime.”
Scully and Scott both noted that police and prosecutors’ groups simply do not have the money available to fight campaigns against well-funded efforts like the one that backed Proposition 47. Opponents reported spending about $471,000 through mid-October, while proponents raised more than $7 million, including huge donations from foundations controlled by liberal activist George Soros and conservative Christian businessman B. Wayne Hughes, a Malibu Republican.
Other prominent supporters included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, both Republicans.
Despite the disparate nature of the supporters, few law enforcement officials or high-profile politicians were willing to endorse the effort.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-San Francisco, was the only statewide elected official to endorse the initiative. Steinberg backed it, along with three district attorneys: San Francisco’s George Gascón, Humboldt County’s Paul Gallegos and Santa Clara’s Jeff Rosen.
Newsom said voters were left to adopt the changes because lawmakers have been too fearful of being seen as soft on crime. “There is a growing, rational thinking around moving in a new direction” on how to reduce recidivism and offer treatment to offenders, he said. Part of that shift in voter thinking has come from recent publicity over conditions in California prisons, which have been subject to federal oversight for years because of overcrowding.
“There’s a sea change happening here in this country, a growing awakening, a growing consciousness that what we’ve been doing has failed,” Newsom said.
Backers say the reduced penalties will cut the number of inmates heading to prisons and county jails and will save millions of dollars each year. The measure requires any savings to be funneled into a new state fund to reduce truancy and dropout rates in K-12 public schools, pay for victim services and create mental health and drug treatment programs to keep at-risk individuals out of custody.
But they caution that voters and supporters must be vigilant to ensure the money is spent as the measure intended, rather than doled out to law enforcement.
“It’s a really a strong concern for us that the money could end up meaning there’s some more cops in schools or the building of more jail space,” said Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which advocates for reduced spending on prisons.
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What it does
Proposition 47 reduces the following crimes to misdemeanors:
▪ Grand theft of $950 or less.
▪ Shoplifting of property worth $950 or less.
▪ Receiving stolen property of $950 or less.
▪ Writing a bad check for $950 or less (unless the offender has three previous forgery-related convictions, which would allow the court to decide whether the case should be a misdemeanor or felony).
▪ Forging a check for $950 or less (unless the suspect also commits identity theft in connection with the forgery, which would allow the case to be charged either as a misdemeanor or felony).
▪ Drug possession for personal use (not including marijuana possession for personal use, which can be charged as an infraction or misdemeanor).