California voters appear ready to further scale back the state’s extensive prison system 20 years after they passed the controversial three strikes law, which sentences third-time felons to 25 years to life.
Proposition 47, also known as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” would downgrade six felony crimes: drug possession, grand theft, shoplifting, check forgery, receiving stolen property and writing bad checks—as long as the stolen items or bad checks total less than $950.
A recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found 62 percent of voters supported the measure, with only 25 percent opposed.
About 40,000 offenders each year are convicted of crimes addressed in the measure, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office. Classifying these offenses as misdemeanors would result in shorter jail sentences or probation, potentially releasing thousands of inmates and freeing up to 30,000 prison beds, the policy group said.
The reduction in the prison population would save $400 million to $700 million, according to estimates by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
The measure requires that the savings be used to support school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, mental health and drug abuse treatment and other programs designed to keep offenders out of prison.
But the measure has drawn harsh attacks from law enforcement officials and district attorneys across the state.
“In the city of Richmond, where we have a problem with gun violence, is it really a good idea to reduce those crimes to misdemeanors?” asked Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson in an interview. “That’s absurd.”
Peterson said more than two-thirds of inmates currently in prison are there for crimes against people—murder, rape, robbery and sexual assault. “The public is being deceived,” he said.
There are currently 134,000 inmates in the state prison system, but “only three percent of the entire population” is serving time for simple drug possession and lower level offenses, according to Peterson. “The proponents of this measure make it sound like we’ve filled prisons up with low-level drug offenders, and that’s not true,” he said.
“The other thing that’s absolutely appalling is this proposition reduces possession of a date rape drug to a misdemeanor. As a father of three daughters, I’m appalled and offended and horrified by that,” Peterson said.
“[Prop. 47 is] mischaracterized, not well thought out,” Peterson said. “It’s just a knee-jerk reaction to the prison overcrowding problem.”
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley agrees. She called the proposition a “Trojan horse” in an op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle, and recently sent a letter to her supporters urging them to vote against the proposition. In her letter, O’Malley emphasized that Proposition 47 would reduce consequences for those who commit identity theft and possess date-rape drugs.
According to the text of the proposed law, the measure “ensures that sentences for people convicted of dangerous crimes like rape, murder, and child molestation” will not change.
Many supporters of Proposition 47 see a chance to address longstanding inequalities in the criminal justice system that they say have led to the unfair targeting of minority communities.
“People of color are the ones who tend to get the more severe penalties of a felony,” Richmond Vice-Mayor Jovanka Beckles said. “It’s about time we stop investing in prisons and start investing in people.”
Michelle Wright of Oakland Rising, a nonprofit with a mission to educate and mobilize voters in East and West Oakland, says the organization is running a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign focusing on Proposition 47. Oakland Rising is a multiethnic and multiracial organization, Wright said, and the group’s constituents would be impacted by the passage of the proposition.
Tamisha Walker, 32, was incarcerated for six months and now works as a community organizer in Richmond assisting people coming out of prison. “We are returning residents, the fact that we have a felony is just a circumstance, a mistake we made,” Walker said.
Walker, along with other members of the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, has been speaking at churches, knocking on doors and calling on voters in support of the initiative.
Most of the “wobbler” crimes committed by minorities—crimes that prosecutors can file as either a misdemeanor or felony—are prosecuted as felonies, she said, causing a stigma that “promotes fear in the community” and leads to barriers in employment upon release. Passage of the initiative would reallocate the money and “ultimately keep families together,” she said.
Richard Martin, a supporter of Proposition 47, agrees with Walker. “The current system is not working,” Martin said based on his experience. “Mandating tougher sentences is not having any effect on crime.”
Martin has been convicted of several felonies, mostly drug related, all falling under the “wobbler” categories that Proposition 47 would reclassify as misdemeanors. After going through a drug treatment program in his mid-30s, the now 57-year-old Martin has turned his life around. He has a master’s degree, is an author, and runs fundraising for the nonprofit Community Works West in Oakland.
Despite personal success, Martin said in an interview that his felonies have prevented him and his wife from adopting children, and barred him from his ideal job as a high school English teacher.
Lenore Anderson, the Executive Director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said the growth of California’s prison system since 1980 is “exponential.” Over the ensuing years, Anderson said, California has built 22 prisons and one university; spending on prisons has increased 1500%; and the prison population has grown five times larger.
Anderson co-wrote the Proposition 47 initiative, along with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne. Arguments like those about identity theft and possession of date rape drugs are “fear-mongering at its worst,” she said.
“Prop 47 maintains California laws related to identity theft,” Anderson said. “This allows prosecutors to obtain felony punishment for any identity theft, regardless of the value of the property taken.” She also said actual sexual assault remains a felony under the language of the proposition. “Using any drug to facilitate rape or sexual assault of any kind, or sexually assaulting anyone who is under the influence of any drug, is a felony.”
Alameda County’s District Attorney Nancy O’Malley answers Anderson’s argument by saying that drugs used in sexual assaults are underreported, and by the time they are communicated it’s often too late to detect use of the drugs in the survivor’s system. Being able to prosecute the perpetrator based on possession of drugs used in sex crimes is important.
“We are finally turning the tide of the seriousness and frequency of sexual assault on campus,” Malley said. “To then minimize the possession of drugs that facilitate those sexual assault crimes, relegating it to only a misdemeanor, sends the wrong message as a public policy statement.”
Beyond arguments about possession of date rape drugs, the Nov 4. proposition has become part of a national debate on whether the United States has a serious problem with what protestors, such as those in Berkeley and Oakland this week, have referred to as “mass incarceration.”
The Yes campaign has attracted an unlikely crew of supporters nationwide, including former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Brad Pitt, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and the liberal billionaire George Soros.
Gingrich expressed his support for the proposition in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in September, in which he cited other states that reduced their prison populations and saw benefits. Texas “saved billions of dollars” and saw violent crimes decrease, Gingrich wrote. South Carolina closed a prison and experienced a drop in recidivism.
In an attempt to reduce chronic prison overcrowding that was costing the state billions of dollars, three years ago the California Legislature shifted some of the responsibility for incarcerating many low-risk inmates from the state to counties.
“We are the finished product for what re-entry stands for,” said Antwon Cloird, founder of Men and Women of Purpose, a Richmond-based nonprofit that provides mentoring services to former prisoners. “Some people need to go to jail, but some people need an opportunity to change their lives.”