Editorials

Proposition 47: A failure to learn history’s lesson

AP

In their laudable effort to reverse mass incarceration, California policymakers have been too slow to provide felons with necessary care and treatment upon their release.

That’s among the conclusions to be gleaned from an important reporting project by newspapers in Palm Springs, Ventura, Salinas and Redding analyzing Proposition 47, the 2014 initiative that cut penalties for drug possession and property theft, and reduced many crimes to misdemeanors.

“Thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime,” says the report by The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, The Ventura County Star, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Salinas Californian.

Proposition 47, well-meaning but ill-conceived, won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Advocates led by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón promised the law would save hundreds of millions of dollars in prison costs. The savings were to be poured into drug and mental health care treatment and job training.

The reporters found that 13,500 inmates have been released early from prison as a result of Proposition 47. Courts, complying with the initiative’s terms, reduced as many as 200,000 felony convictions to misdemeanors.

Some ex-convicts, having had their felony records erased, have used the opportunity to reenter society by getting decent jobs and housing. But in many instances, individuals released from prison have fallen into old ways.

While the state has earmarked some money for education and treatment, “not a penny has been spent,” the reporters write. That’s one of the initiative’s flaws. Felons were freed before the state had sufficient programs in place; they’re still not in place, two years later. Many ex-felons, not the most stable of individuals, have been left to fend for themselves.

Wayne Woods was among the people whose lives were detailed. Free for the first time in 20 years, he was living on Los Angeles Skid Row, a dystopian dead end where drugs are used openly. Not surprisingly, Woods could not resist. Police arrested him smoking crack, but he was back on the street in two weeks.

“In my case, it’s worse,” Woods said. “In prison, everything was provided. I had a place to stay. I had meals. I had a job, if I wanted to work. And if I wanted to do some drugs, I could have gotten that in there, too.”

For more than a year, some local law enforcement officials have been decrying the real life implications of the initiative. Cops see little reason to arrest people for minor property crimes or drug possession because penalties are so lax. Petty property crimes, of the sort that lowers quality of life in cities, are on the rise.

Drug users know they will face few consequences. So in a perverse incentive, addicts are choosing short jail stints, knowing drug treatment, which could help them turn their lives around, would be more intrusive.

“The results are clear,” the papers write. “At the longest running drug court program in Los Angeles, run out of a narrow building on the edge of Skid Row, enrollment has plummeted from 80 people to only four.”

The issue is ripe for serious research. The plight of the Proposition 47 convicts ought to be documented. If it’s not too late, there should be intervention.

The Proposition 47 aftermath is eerily familiar. In the late 1960s and 1970s, California authorities, motivated by the best of intentions, released patients from state hospitals, promising treatment in the community. That never happened, and the mental health care system never recovered. Having failed to learn from history, California may be doomed to relive it.

The stories in The Desert Sun, The Ventura County Star, The Record Searchlight and Salinas Californian are heavy on anecdotes, as most journalism is. But authorities and prison reformers should take heed. Pendulums swing. If the failure persists, voters will respond.

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