Capitol Alert

California prison population drops under Proposition 47, but public safety impact still unclear

Avenal state prison.
Avenal state prison. Sacramento

Citrus Heights police Officer Wesley Herman recently arrested a parolee carrying stolen jewelry and a deceased man’s identification card.

If the property was valued at more than $950, the case was a felony that would let him take the man into custody. If not, it was a misdemeanor and he’d get a citation.

The first words out of his mouth, Herman said, were, “Am I going to jail?”

It’s been nine months since California voters approved a ballot measure reducing charges for some nonviolent drug and property crimes, and Herman says repeat offenders are getting savvy about the new limits of the law.

“These guys know that if they are running around with less than $950 of stolen property on them, they’re not going to jail,” he said. “They’re always trying to stay a step ahead of us.”

Continuing the recent trend away from decades of tough-on-crime policy, nearly 60 percent of voters last November supported Proposition 47, which reduced from felonies to misdemeanors offenses including drug possession for personal use. Savings on correctional spending, estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars annually, is intended to go to mental health and drug treatment, anti-truancy efforts and victim services.

Only a spotty picture has emerged of the law’s early effects: Supporters celebrate that tens of thousands of current and former convicts have already had the felonies on their records changed to misdemeanors, opening up new opportunities for jobs, housing and public benefits. Police and prosecutors argue that it has made their jobs more difficult.

Communities across the state fret about the connection to spikes in crime, but those familiar with public safety statistics say it’s too soon to know whether anecdotes from the street are evidence that Proposition 47 is responsible.

“Law enforcement isn’t a place where change is readily embraced,” said Tom Hoffman, a longtime police officer and former director of California’s parole operations, who advised the Proposition 47 campaign. For this sentencing overhaul to succeed, it will take “a lot of time and a lot of patience and, quite candidly, a lot of courage.”

Proposition 47 has accomplished at least one of its objectives already.

As of this week, 4,347 inmates have been released from state prisons due to resentencing, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The releases helped push the overcrowded prison system below court-mandated capacity levels by February, a full year ahead of its deadline.

Many more individuals have successfully petitioned at the county level to have their records changed, including approximately 1,400 so far in Sacramento County. As some inmates are released from jail and cramped facilities clear out, more serious offenders are serving longer portions of their sentences.

“We want to be very careful about who we’re putting in a cage,” said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, because incarceration can sometimes “work at cross-purposes” with those people turning their lives around.

Nearly 3,600 defendants in Santa Clara County have had their felonies reduced to misdemeanors since November. Rosen, one of only three district attorneys in California to endorse Proposition 47, said they are sending fewer people to prison for these crimes than before.

“The benefits to our society from locking up fewer nonviolent offenders will in the long run translate into safer communities, a better economy, and stronger services,” he said.

Increases in crime during the first half of the year, however, have raised early doubts in many communities.

Preliminary statistics for the city of Sacramento show a 25 percent rise in violent crime, including homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, through June, compared with the same period in 2014. Property crimes, such as burglary and motor vehicle theft, are up about 5 percent, though larcenies have dropped slightly.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office has seen a 9 percent increase in filings so far this year for cases it is pursuing – an 11 percent drop in felonies offset by a 27 percent jump in misdemeanors.

Magnus Lofstrom, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California who has studied the impacts of realignment, cautioned against drawing conclusions from the data.

Upticks in violent and property crime rates during the first year of realignment caused similar concerns, Lofstrom said. With the exception of a boost in auto thefts, however, the spike was in line with increases in states that did not undergo realignment, and crime rates have since dropped again.

With a surge of releases under Proposition 47, “it’s fair to say it puts an upward pressure on crime rates” for the types of low-level offenses those inmates committed, he added. But he said it’s very difficult to attribute a particular change in law to a change in crime rates. Cities and counties vary in their staffing levels, law enforcement priorities and reentry services for released offenders.

Law enforcement officials feel more certain of the connection, pointing to “unintended consequences” of the law.

Herman of the Citrus Heights Police Department said Proposition 47 has limited the ability of police to respond to drug-related crimes.

Previously, he said, he was able to take someone to jail for simple possession, where at least “he’s going to be clean a few days.”

“Now you have to show that this is a crime heinous enough to take them out of the community,” he said.

Instead of being arrested, the suspect might instead receive a citation to appear in court in 30 days. Herman said that allows addicts to keep using – and potentially commit thefts to support their habit.

“It’s been difficult for us to prevent as many crimes as we could have before,” he said. “Our hands do sometimes get tied.”

The changes have also had a detrimental effect on California drug courts, according to prosecutors.

Those programs provide offenders with the option of seeking treatment for substance abuse rather than facing prison time. But without the “hammer” of a felony now hanging over them, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said, those arrested for drug-related crimes have little incentive to choose rehabilitation over the lesser charges.

“Logically, many of those people who have the addiction problems that we want to address are not going to avail themselves of that because it’s too much work,” she said, adding that it creates a “revolving door” for petty criminals to return to the streets and reoffend. “If you don’t have accountability for criminal behavior, there’s no reason not to commit that criminal behavior.”

The number of cases in Sacramento County’s two drug courts has fallen to 587 from 970 since the passage of Proposition 47. In Fresno County, one drug court has halved to 280 cases, while another lost all 80 of its participants.

San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos said proponents of the measure went about their aims in the wrong way. Established diversion programs in his county are collapsing – drug court participation is down 60 percent – and there are not yet resources to create new ones.

While 65 percent of any savings on correctional spending from Proposition 47 is earmarked for mental health and drug treatment programs to keep at-risk individuals out of custody, counties won’t see any of that money until August 2016, after the next budget cycle.

“What are they going to do in the meantime?” Ramos said. “They should have had a plan in place.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

Proposition 47 releases

As of Aug. 5, more than 4,300 inmates have been released from state prisons due to resentencing under Proposition 47. These are some of the counties to which they have been released:

Los Angeles – 1,588

Riverside – 486

San Bernardino – 327

Kern – 254

San Diego – 207

Sacramento – 153

Yolo – 51

Placer – 31

El Dorado – 9