Email this article to a friend

The Prison Complex

Wednesday, Nov 5, 2014, 8:00 am

Prop 47 Passes: California Wobbles Towards Sentencing Reform

By George Lavender

Email this article to a friend

Prop 47, a California ballot measure that could reduce some sentences from felonies to misdemeanors passed easily on Tuesday  

California overwhelmingly voted to take some of the wobbles out of its criminal justice system on Tuesday. 

“Wobblers” are crimes that can be charged either as felonies or misdemeanors. Prop 47, a ballot measure requiring misdemeanors instead of felonies for certain “non-serious, nonviolent” drug and property offenses, passed with 58.5% of the vote.

The ballot measure's supporters claim the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act will save millions of dollars which would otherwise be spent on locking up people on lower level drug possession and property crimes. According to the Yes on 47 campaign “California counties will save hundreds of millions annually and state prison reductions will generate between $750 million to $1.25 billion in savings over the next five years alone. Those savings will be shifted into K-12 school programs (25%), victim services (10%) and mental health and drug treatment (65%).”

Supporters of the proposition included former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. Celebrating the passage of the ballot measure the Yes campaign stated “we can no longer waste billions on costly and bloated state prisons while our communities suffer.” 

The proposition was opposed by the California Police Chiefs Association who warned it would “burden our criminal justice system.” The CPCA warned that Prop 47 would “overcrowd jails with dangerous felons who should be in state prison and jam California’s courts with hearings to provide “Get Out of Prison Free” cards.” The Association opposed the loss of discretion for prosecutors to choose whether to charge someone with a felony or misdemeanor.

According to ThinkProgress' reporter Nicole Flatow Prop 47 passed on a night in which voters “sent a signal that they are ready to reform a system that has sent more people in the United States to jail than in any other country in the world.” Flatow points to ballot initiatives in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington DC all of which passed measures decriminalizing marijuana on Tuesday as further sign of a national shift on criminal justice issues.

It's the second time in as many years in which California voters have passed some form of sentencing reform by way of ballot measure. In 2012 Prop 36 reformed the state's “Three Strikes” law, requiring the third strike to be “serious or violent” for a life sentence to be imposed.

“More and more voters are seeing that prisons and jails are not the answers to solving our social problems” says Diana Zuniga, statewide field organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), “I think that the voters have been very much further ahead than our elected officials.”

Under Prop 47, several thousand people already convicted of felonies will be eligible to petition the court for reduced sentences but Zuniga cautions that “while this is something that will decrease the sentences for some folks it doesn't necessarily impact everybody.” CURB took a neutral position on the proposition.

Under the act, a defendant can still be convicted of a felony if they have a “previous conviction for crimes such as rape, murder or child molestation or is a registered sex offender.” Those already convicted of felonies will also be unable to have their sentences reduced if the court finds they are an “unreasonable public safety risk.” 

For Zuniga, the act does not go far enough. “We also have to understand that people have committed violent, serious or sexual crimes also deserve something different” she says.

While there were “some very positive things” about Prop 47, Zuniga says she is concerned about how those millions of dollars in savings will be spent. The majority of the savings from the new act will go to the Board of State and Community Corrections, a body made up predominantly of representatives from law enforcement. Zuniga says it will be important to make sure that funds created by the new act “goes to community based organizations and doesn't necessarily go back into the jail system and expanding the jail system throughout the state.”

The victorious Yes on 47 campaign statement states “we are starting to imagine a California that builds 22 new universities over the coming decades, instead of 22 new prisons.” California has one of the largest prison systems in the US, but has seen a reduction in its prison population in recent years. It is currently expanding capacity at two of its prisons in San Diego and Ione. 

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.

View Comments