Racial disparities in drug arrests have decreased significantly since the passage of Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified nonviolent drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, according to new research published by the American Journal of Public Health.
After the passage of Proposition 47, the number of drug arrests dropped dramatically for all racial groups. Beyond the overall drop in arrests, researchers found a drop in the percentage of black people being arrested for drug offenses compared to those who were white.
In just the first month following the measure's passage, for every 100,000 Californians, 66 more black people than white people were arrested on drug charges. If the measure had not gone into effect, the study estimates that number would have been 95.
"The changes to patterns of drug arrests as a result of the offense reclassifications were not only substantial, but happened immediately after Prop. 47 was passed," said Alyssa Mooney, a doctoral student at UC San Francisco and one of the authors of the study.
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Racial disparities in drug arrests increased dramatically during the "war on drugs," which began in 1971. Now, as drug law enforcement changes, researchers like Mooney are investigating how this changes the data.
The study comes on the heels of a report by the Public Policy Institute of California that reported that the measure also led to lower rates of recidivism and a decline in jail population. For proponents of Proposition 47, these studies indicate that the measure is working as intended.
"I'm glad to learn of this study and of these findings," said Lenore Anderson, the co-author of Proposition 47 and executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. "We have a criminal justice system that has seen racial disparities at every stage of the process."
According to Anderson, a large part of the measure's goal was to positively impact communities of color and reverse the racial disparities that often go hand-in-hand with the justice system.
"Our motivation around advocating to replace over-incarceration with a balanced approach to public safety ... is part of a broader goal of advancing racial equity," Anderson said.
But California law enforcement and victims' rights organizations think Proposition 47 created overly lax criminal justice laws, and they are pushing an initiative measure that aims to reverse parts of the measure.
Ron Hernandez, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and a prominent voice against Proposition 47, said lowering the number of arrests doesn't necessarily lead to safer communities.
"As a result (of Proposition 47), law enforcement across California has realized that there is little point in arresting somebody for possession of narcotics," he said. "This study confirms those facts."
For Hernandez, incarceration is a "hammer" hanging over drug addicts' heads that can force them into treatment programs. When incarceration declines, "people who need help will continue to victimize the community as they steal to support their habits."
To address the substance abuse many of these addicts face, part of Proposition 47 mandated that the money saved by reducing incarceration levels be funneled into public agencies that provide mental health and substance use treatment. In 2017, the first year those funds were allocated, over $100 million was awarded to various agencies. The hope of Proposition 47 advocates is that the treatment programs are more effective than incarceration, but no research has been done on how effective that money will be.
"I think it will also be valuable to find ways of understanding how individuals, families and communities are affected longer term, given the reduction in arrests and incarceration," said Mooney, the UCSF researcher.
And even with the new research on the measure, there's still a long way to go when it comes to evaluating the net impact of Proposition 47.
Who will make that judgment? "It's up to policymakers and the public," Mooney said.