If Prop. 47 stalls, women of color will be hurt most

Trishawn Carey listens to her lawyer speak during a bail hearing on July 22 in Los Angeles. She is accused of swinging a police baton at officers.
Trishawn Carey listens to her lawyer speak during a bail hearing on July 22 in Los Angeles. She is accused of swinging a police baton at officers. Los Angeles Times

Californians took a heroic leap forward when they voted overwhelmingly to adopt Proposition 47. It’s a long road, however, from enactment to implementation.

Many responsible for putting Proposition 47 into effect remain hostile to the measure, while some are trying to rig it for failure. In early July, Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck brazenly linked the proposition to a spike in crime. He offered no data to back up his assertions, nor any rationale.

False claims like these, coupled with a reluctance to comply with provisions and a blatant lack of transparency, threaten to derail Proposition 47 before it can deliver on its promise.

By reducing 40,000 felony cases to misdemeanors, the measure could save California hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Reductions in the prison population are projected to generate between $750 million and $1.25 billion in savings over the next five years alone. In a state that spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, but only $9,200 per K-12 student, those savings could be spent on improving school programs and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.

If Proposition 47 stalls, women of color will be hit hardest. California is the world’s No. 1 jailer of women, who are three times more likely than men to be in prison for low-level, nonviolent offenses. With racial bias playing a significant role in sentencing, the numbers are even higher for black and brown women.

Consider Trishawn Carey, a homeless 34-year-old black woman who suffers from schizophrenia and diabetes. In March, she was charged with assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer and resisting arrest after she picked up an officer’s nightstick from the sidewalk during the Skid Row altercation that left Charly “Africa” Keunang dead. She never swung the baton.

Carey was jailed for nearly six months in lieu of $1 million bail. Several weeks ago, acknowledging the absurdity of requiring a mentally ill homeless woman to post even the 10 percent typically needed to secure release, Judge Ray G. Jurado reduced her bail to $50,000 and ordered her to enter rehabilitation at A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project. Since 1998, we have provided housing and support services to more than 600 women, transforming their lives and the lives of their children.

Contrary to the judge’s order, jail officials released Carey with no medication or referrals, and without informing us. Fragile and insulin dependent, she was dumped and left to wander. By the time she was found hours later, she was suffering from insulin shock, and was disoriented and distressed. Most of all, she was scared. A trip to the emergency room got her sorely needed medical attention, but her emotional recovery will take far longer.

This kind of harrowing abuse occurs with chilling frequency. The homeless, disabled and mentally ill are warehoused in jails when they should be getting treatment and services. And with formerly incarcerated women less likely than men to secure a job, public benefits or stable housing upon release, the consequences are far-reaching for children and communities.

Proposition 47 will help to reverse that trend, but not if it is sabotaged by those in charge of carrying out its mandate. Public officials must not be allowed to rig the measure to fail in the same way our justice system is rigged to deny basic protections to the most vulnerable Americans.

We need a new movement to uphold and implement Proposition 47 – and to hold accountable every judge, prosecutor, attorney, jail administrator and probation officer responsible for putting it into practice.

Susan Burton is founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project in Los Angeles.