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Viewpoints: Prop. 47 would reduce crime and save money

Over the last few decades, California legislators have passed more than 1,000 crime bills. Many created new felonies, while others lengthened sentences. The result of the “tough on crime” era is that California now incarcerates 135,000 people, seven times as many as it did in 1960 when crime rates were at similarly low levels.

To keep up with our exploding prison population, California built 22 new prisons in just 30 years. During the same period of time, we built just one University of California campus.

“Tough on crime” makes for a popular slogan, but the result runs contrary to its intended goals.

It has led California to spend $10 billion per year on corrections, with 6 in 10 inmates returning to prison within three years of their release. With many of these individuals being incarcerated for low-level drug offenses, we must ask if this is the best course for offenders, for victims and for taxpayers.

We have lost our ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance. We can no longer afford – either economically or socially – to be merely the tough guys. It’s time to start also being the smart guys.

We can reduce crime, lower our prison population and save money by changing our approach to low-level offenders. Nobody wins when we incarcerate someone at a cost of thousands to taxpayers, just for them to be released some time later and reoffend. We must transform our justice system into one that prioritizes prevention, effective rehabilitation, and sentences that stop the cycle of crime.

Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, would change low-level, nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and shoplifting from felonies that carry prison terms to misdemeanors. To be clear, the change would not apply to any serious or violent offender – those who are a threat to the rest of us.

The projected savings is a staggering $750 million to $1.25 billion over five years. This is money that could not be raided for pet projects; it would be automatically directed to K-12 programs, victim services and mental health and drug abuse treatment.

The beginning of my career coincided with the start of the “tough on crime” generation. Thirty years ago, I joined the Los Angeles Police Department.

Three decades later, having served as a beat cop in some of L.A.’s roughest neighborhoods, as chief of the San Francisco Police Department and as the elected district attorney, I can assure you that the politically popular “tough on crime” era has not made us safer. It has, however, nearly bankrupted the state. And it has certainly torn the fabric of those communities hit hardest by drug abuse.

Time and again, I have seen low-level drug offenders be arrested and convicted, spend a few months or years incarcerated, and then come out and go right back to a life of drug addiction and crime.

Cycling addicts in and out of jail does not reduce crime or make us safer. To the contrary, it makes it harder for offenders to get their lives back on track and become contributing members of our community.

I believe it’s time to do something different, but the choice is yours. California can lead the nation on the march toward a modern justice system that breaks the cycle of crime by addressing its root causes. Join me on Nov. 4 in supporting Proposition 47 for common-sense, evidence-based reform to our justice system.

It’s time to realize that taking a thoughtful approach to offenders and reducing system costs are not at odds with public safety.