California Elections

Proposition 47 would lower penalties to reduce prison population, pay for programs

Over the years, California voters have been asked to decide a number of criminal justice issues, ranging from whether to keep the death penalty to modifying the state’s “three-strikes” law. Now, voters are now being given the chance to alter punishments for nonviolent crimes in a move that proponents say ultimately will reduce crime statewide.

Proposition 47 asks voters to approve reducing from felonies to misdemeanors punishments for a variety of property crimes that supporters of the measure say will reduce overcrowding in California’s 34 adult prisons. The measure is the latest in a series of attempts by penal reform groups and state officials to cut California’s prison costs by reducing inmate populations.

What it does

Reduces to misdemeanors the following crimes:

▪ Grand theft of $950 or less.

▪ Shoplifting of property worth $950 or less.

▪ Receiving stolen property of $950 or less.

▪ Writing a bad check for $950 or less (unless the offender has three previous forgery-related convictions, which would allow the court to decide whether the case should be a misdemeanor or felony).

▪ Forging a check for $950 or less (unless the suspect also commits identity theft in connection with the forgery, which would allow the case to be charged either as a misdemeanor or felony).

▪ Drug possession for personal use (not including marijuana possession for personal use, which can be charged as an infraction or misdemeanor).

Other changes

▪ Allows criminals sentenced for such crimes or those who already have served time to petition a court to have their records changed to reflect misdemeanor rather than felony convictions.

▪ Exempts registered sex offenders or criminals with convictions for rape, murder or child molestation from the required crime reductions, allowing them to face felony charges for the crimes outlined in the measure.

▪ Offenders released as a result of resentencing would face one year on state parole unless a judge waives that requirement.

▪ Creates a new state fund that would receive the annual savings realized from reduced prison sentences, an amount the legislative analyst concludes is “subject to significant uncertainty.”

How the savings would be divided

▪ 25 percent on grants to reduce truancy and dropout rates in K-12 public schools.

▪ 10 percent on grants for victim services.

▪ 65 percent on mental health and drug treatment to keep at-risk individuals out of custody.

Who’s for it?

▪ San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón

▪ Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos

▪ Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen

▪ William Lansdowne, former chief of police for San Diego, San Jose and Richmond

▪ Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice

▪ California Catholic Conference

▪ State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg

▪ California Democratic Party

▪ League of Women Voters of California

▪ California Teachers Association

▪ California Labor Federation

Who’s against it?

▪ California District Attorneys Association

▪ California Police Chiefs Association

▪ California State Sheriffs’ Association

▪ California Peace Officers Association

▪ California Coalition Against Sexual Assault

▪ Crime Victims United of California

▪ California Fraternal Order of Police

▪ Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully

▪ Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones

▪ Citrus Heights Police Chief Chris Boyd

▪ California Republican Party

Major contributors


▪ B. Wayne Hughes, Malibu Republican and conservative Christian businessman who supports criminal justice reform, $1.255 million

▪ Open Society Policy Center, founded by liberal billionaire George Soros, $1.21 million

▪ Atlantic Advocacy Fund, nonprofit philanthropy fund, $600,000

▪ Civil rights attorney Molly Munger, $325,000

▪ Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, $246,000


▪ Peace Officers Research Association of California, $230,000

▪ California State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, $25,000

▪ California Police Chiefs Association, $5,000

▪ Kern County Prosecutors Association, $7,500

▪ California District Attorneys Association, $5,000

How true are competing claims?


▪ Proposition 47 stops cycling low-level, nonviolent inmates into the prison system and reduces costs by hundreds of millions of dollars a year that can be funneled into drug treatment, mental health and anti-dropout programs.

The measure essentially mirrors the goal of Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment program, which has helped reduce prison populations by shifting nonserious, nonviolent offenders toward county jails or probation. The measure reduces to misdemeanors some crimes for drug possession and property offenses, but does not allow dangerous criminals – registered sex offenders or those with convictions for violent crimes like murder or rape – to take advantage of the new penalties.

Proponents say cost savings could be as high as $1.25 billion over five years, money that would go toward treatment and educational programs. The actual savings are only an estimate, however. The state’s legislative analyst concludes the savings could reach “the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” and that savings for counties also could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, the analyst notes that such savings depend on a number of factors that cannot yet be measured, including how offenders end up being sentenced under the new provisions. If many convicted of misdemeanors face jail time instead of supervised release, the savings could be lower, and the savings could be affected by how many crimes are committed in the future under the new penalties.


▪ The measure turns serious crimes into ones that will result in a slap on the wrist, including reducing penalties for firearm theft and possession of date-rape drugs, while opening up the possibility of 10,000 felons winning release from prison by petitioning courts if Proposition 47 passes.

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors largely oppose the measure, saying it removes from prosecutors’ hands the flexibility to decide how to charge a crime based on the situation and the individual’s background. They particularly object to a provision in the measure allowing firearm theft to be considered a misdemeanor if the weapon is worth $950 or less, as most handguns are. Technically, passage of the measure would make theft of firearms worth $950 or less a misdemeanor. To charge a felony, prosecutors would have to show that the stolen weapon was subsequently used in a crime. The same is true of concerns over possession of date rape drugs, which would become a misdemeanor unless the drugs were later used in an assault.

If the measure passes, some felons currently in prison will be able to win release, although the estimate of 10,000 may be far too high. The legislative analyst concludes resentencing of felons currently in prison “could result in the release of several thousand inmates.” However, there is no guarantee of even that many winning release. Inmates can seek resentencing in court, but the measure includes language that allows a court to reject such a petition if it finds “it likely that the offender will commit a specified severe crime” in the future, the legislative analyst found.

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