After two decades of approving stringent ‘tough on crime’ policies that created a massively overcrowded prison system with the worst recidivism rate in the nation, California voters are now bringing their state to the forefront of progressive criminal justice reform.
Prop 47, which reduces low-level drug crimes and property crimes valued at under $950 from felonies to misdemeanors, passed on Election Day with 59 percent of the vote. Here’s a look at what that means for California moving forward.
Hundreds of inmates across California have been released on reduced charges in the two weeks since California voters approved Prop 47, and public defenders and district attorneys are working overtime to review the cases of roughly 4,000 additional inmates now eligible for possible re-sentencing.
The release of inmates began almost immediately, with San Diego County releasing six youth offenders with downgraded charges from juvenile hall the morning after Election Day. The San Diego public defender’s office also reports taking 200 calls an hour from inmates petitioning to have their charges reviewed. The story is similar across the state – from Contra Costa County, where at least 35 inmates have been released so far, to Stanislaus County, where over 60 have.
Considering that a 2011 Supreme Court case found the overcrowding of California’s prisons to violate the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Constitution, the early release of inmates is significant not only for giving non-violent offenders a chance at rehabilitation, but also for maintaining the humanity of California’s prisons.
The Big Picture
The release of current inmates is actually just a small part of what Prop 47 will achieve in California. One of the measure’s most important features is that it is retroactive, which means that past offenders can apply to have the label of “felon” removed from their records. Felony charges are a huge obstacle in securing housing and employment, making the new reforms a big step forward in helping past offenders re-enter society. Millions of past offenders can now petition to have the felony charges on their records changed to misdemeanors.
Of course, the Prop 47 reforms don’t come without a period of adjustment. City officials and prosecutors will have a heavier caseload, since they will have jurisdiction over new misdemeanor cases that used to be handled as felonies by district attorneys. Police officers across the state will have to be trained to handle arrests differently in cases affected by Prop 47 – most significantly, misdemeanor crimes have to actually happen in an officer’s presence or in the presence of a witness willing to sign an affidavit in order for that offender to be arrested.
Certain counties, including San Francisco, face the possibility of losing the state funds they were being given for providing successful mental health and rehabilitation services to offenders rather than imprisoning them. The hope, though, is that the reforms of Prop 47 will make these alternatives more widespread across the state, rather than rewarding the few areas that were relatively successful at rehabilitation before Prop 47.
The passing of Prop 47 makes California the first state to de-felonize non-violent drug use offenses across the board, and the funds saved will be redirected primarily into mental health and drug treatment services. If the approach is successful, it may serve as an example to other states that an effective criminal justice system does not have to value punishment at the expense of rehabilitation and treatment.