The victory of Proposition 47 in California on Tuesday is another example of the public’s waning support of 20th century tough-on-crime policies that stuffed state prisons to unhealthy levels.
We sure hope the public knows what it is doing, because the provisions of the measure began Wednesday.
That means, from now on, people convicted of drug possession and petty property crime will not face jail time. It is supposed to save the state hundreds of millions each year by diverting low-level felons into addiction and mental health programs – some of which exist, others just imagined.
Also, the measure applies retroactively to potentially thousands of people already convicted; it’s impossible to say exactly how many, as the measure doesn’t apply to people who have past records that include murder or sex crimes.
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It does, however, apply to prior offenders of all manner of other serious and violent convictions – armed robbery, carjacking, residential burglary and assault with a deadly weapon, the latter of which may have been homicide but for lack of a clear shot.
Of all six measures on the statewide ballot, this one has the most potential for dangerous unintended consequences.
Proposition 47 passed with 58.5 percent of the vote, a significantly lower margin of victory than the other two winning state measures – Propositions 1 and 2. It may have to do with the fact that it was listed much lower on the ballot, and voters skipped it.
More likely, it reflects the public’s growing ambivalence with policies that have resulted in a correctional system that costs taxpayers $10 billion a year, yet hasn’t appreciably reduced recidivism rates, and a sense by those on both sides of the political aisle that our criminal justice system is broken.
This measure followed closely on the heels of two other criminal justice reform policies: Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment in 2011 and Proposition 36, a 2012 ballot measure that revised California’s “three-strikes” law so that the third strike had to be a violent or serious felony.
Too closely, for some. Much of the opposition to the measure came from the state’s sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys, probation officers – you know, the experts who handle criminals on our behalf. They said they are still grappling with the changes that came with realignment and expect this to complicate their efforts to comply.
There are other concerns with Proposition 47, specifically how it reclassifies gun theft and possession of date-rape drugs like rohypnol as misdemeanors. Prosecutors argue convincingly that the initiative will give them less flexibility in prosecuting creeps who intend to use roofies.
Gov. Brown, who kept as quiet on this measure as most other things on the ballot, might well find it is raining on his realignment parade.
Ultimately, the desire to reform the state’s criminal justice system is a healthy sign of a maturing society recognizing that true rehabilitation is a more humane way to fight crime than locking people up and throwing away the key.
We just hope the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the other way.