Crime & Justice

Election 2014: Prop 47 signals state shift from lock-em-up to rehabilitation

State prison inmates Earl Stewart, left, Ricardo Castillo and Jesus Ledesma take part in a painting class on Tuesday, Nov. 19 at Norco's California Rehabilitation Center.
State prison inmates Earl Stewart, left, Ricardo Castillo and Jesus Ledesma take part in a painting class on Tuesday, Nov. 19 at Norco's California Rehabilitation Center.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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California took another step away from its lock-em-up mentality Tuesday, passing Proposition 47 by a 58-42 percent vote and relaxing punishment for low-level drug and theft offenses.  

Under the ballot initiative, felony property crimes such as shoplifting and fraud worth less than $950 are now classified as misdemeanors. Those minor crimes are subjected to a maximum of one year in county jail, but in practice many such offenders will end up on probation or simply pay a fine. The same goes for drug possession for personal use.

“People don’t buy the tough-on-crime narrative anymore,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, the group that steered the campaign for Proposition 47 and led efforts to move the state away from incarceration.

“I think we’ve reached a breaking point where people look at these issues differently and recognize that we can be smart without building more prisons,” Anderson said.

That breaking point may have come in 2011 when a federal court found California had violated the constitutional rights of inmates housed in overcrowded prisons. The court ordered the state to reduce the prison population.

“It only went to show how dysfunctional the system was particularly around Three Strikes,” said Stanford Law professor Michael Romano.

Romano is director of the law school’s Three Strikes Project, which represents inmates serving life sentences under the law the state legislature and voters passed in 1994. Criminals convicted of any third felony – so long as the first and second convictions were serious or violent felonies – were sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 25 years before being eligible for parole.

After initial strong support for that new law, journalists and legal critics began to detail cases in which drug addicts, the homeless or petty thieves were spending their lives in prison for stealing change from cars or getting caught with a small "rock'' of crack cocaine

Romano helped write Proposition 36 to relax Three Strikes. That initiative required that the third felony must be a serious or violent crime. Each county in California passed the measure in 2012 with an approximate 70 percent of the overall vote.

“I think the people realized on a fundamental basis that a life sentence for these crimes was unfair and disproportionate,” Romano said.

The passage of Prop 36 gave criminal justice reformists a springboard to try to change policy for a larger portion of the incarcerated population. Prop 36 affected about 9,000 inmates or “third strikers,” according to a fiscal brief written by the state Legislative Analyst’s office in 2012.  

Prop. 47 affects a much larger prison population: an estimated 40,000 people who are convicted each year of low-level property and drug crimes.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who has campaigned for both measures, said the wider reach of Proposition 47 makes it more of a turning point.

“It goes to a deeper problem that we’ve had in our society of incarcerating people with mental health and substance abuse problems,” Gascon said.

California may not be alone in its changing perceptions of how best punish -- or whether to punish at all -- low-level offenders, especially drug users.

In a February survey done by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans said governments should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. About a quarter said prosecution should be the focus.

The survey results were similar when asked whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that some states have moved away from mandatory prison sentences for drug users.

“This is the beginning of turning around in assessing public safety issues,” Gascon said of Prop 47. “Frankly, (it's about) being able to distinguish between the dangerous and the nuisance.”

A majority of voters passed Proposition 47 Tuesday but it didn’t enjoy the huge margin of support Proposition 36 drew in 2012.  

Most law enforcement associations came out against the measure, but opponents raised a fraction of the $7 million that social justice groups had raised in support of Prop 47 by mid-October.

Stephen Wagstaffe, of the California District Attorneys Association said Proposition 47 takes away the fear of being sent prison, a tool prosecutors used to motivate drug addicts to get sober.

“There just aren’t that many people who get into treatment to avoid their criminality on their own,” he said.

The anticipated savings from sending fewer offenders to prison under Prop 47 will be distributed to mental health and drug counseling programs run by community groups, as well as victims rights groups, gang intervention programs and schools.

A report from the Legislative Analyst’s office projects the state savings from sending fewer convicts to prison will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Counties could see savings from fewer people sent to jails or placed on community supervision. But the report cautions there is significant uncertainty because it is difficult to determine how each county will punish the new misdemeanor cases.

In Los Angeles, the city attorney’s office anticipates a 17 percent increase in misdemeanor case filings because of Proposition 47, according to an October report from the city’s chief legislative analyst. The city says it will need eight new attorneys and $2.7 million in ongoing costs.