Last November, Californians took a historic step forward in criminal justice reform by decisively passing Proposition 47, demonstrating widespread support for smart policies that improve public safety and end our punishment economy.
The measure requires that certain low-level offenses such as shoplifting or simple drug possession be charged as misdemeanors, and directs the millions in annual savings from reduced rates of incarceration towards mental health and drug treatment, school programs and victim services.
Before the measure, crimes now classified as misdemeanors were “wobblers,” meaning that it was up to prosecutors to decide whether to charge individuals with either a felony or a misdemeanor. Mandating that certain low-level offenses be consistently treated as misdemeanors makes the system less vulnerable to bias and injustice.
But only a few months later and before Proposition 47 can be fully implemented, some misguided lawmakers are trying to undermine the will of the voters by introducing bills designed to dismantle this important initiative that made the system fairer.
Some of the bills would send certain pieces of Proposition 47 back to the ballot. We need to give the measure time to work, to be evaluated and to deliver on its promise of community investment.
Californians passed the measure because we are tired of “tough-on-crime” policies that dole out disproportionately harsh punishments and fail to make our communities any safer. Past legislation, such as the “three-strikes” law, served only to trap more low-income communities and people of color in a web of criminalization and incarceration.
Requiring that certain low-level offenses be charged as misdemeanors begins to tear apart that web by removing huge barriers that prevent former inmates from obtaining available jobs and housing. Under Proposition 47, individuals with felony convictions who were previously barred from public housing, or who were discriminated against in their job search, now have a genuine opportunity to rebuild their lives and rejoin their communities. That will make us all safer.
Additionally, since felony convictions can cause immigrants to lose their legal status or be deported, the initiative helps protect them from such threats.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that Proposition 47 could lead to 5,000 fewer incarcerated people in 2015-16, and could lead to $100 million to $200 million in annual savings beginning in 2016.
These savings could provide funding for critically needed services, but there is a danger that they may instead end up being re-funneled into the punishment economy by going toward ineffective solutions such as more police in schools or increased monitoring and surveillance technology.
Some legislators are introducing bills that direct funding where it is truly needed – education and housing. Instead of trying to go behind the backs of voters with anti-Proposition 47 bills, we need all legislators to focus their efforts on ensuring that the savings from the initiative actually go toward resources that will make our communities safer and stronger, such as increasing access to health care and starting restorative justice programs in schools.
Reducing the prison population is an important step forward, but that reduction must be coupled with investments in community-based programs and services that help people get back on their feet.
Proposition 47 could jump start a national trend of more and more policies that shrink the system and rebuild communities. Voters have demonstrated that they want California to lead the way, and it’s time for all legislators to listen to the will of the people and unite behind smart and just laws.
Zachary Norris is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.