Written by Board member Lauren Mendelsohn
This November, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would modify criminal sentencing in order to reduce prison population. The initiative, Proposition 47, also known as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014,” would reduce the mandatory sentencing of certain nonviolent low-level crimes, including drug possession, from felonies or “wobblers” (i.e., potential felonies) to misdemeanors. The state’s savings from incarcerating fewer individuals and from keeping others for shorter periods of time—an estimate of between $100 and $300 million annually—would go towards K-12 education, a victim’s compensation fund, and state-provided rehabilitation programs such as mental health, substance abuse, and diversion programs.
Proposition 47 would reduce punishment for the included offenses from a possible three-year sentence to a maximum of one year. This would apply both proactively and retroactively, meaning that inmates currently sentenced under the old system for a crime covered by the initiative could petition the court to have their sentence reduced. According to the LA Times, there are about 7,000 current inmates who would be able to do so if Prop. 47 passes. In total, over 58,000 of California’s 202,000 felony convictions in 2012—over 25%—were for crimes covered by the initiative. This conveys just how significant this re-sentencing scheme is.
The current need to overhaul California’s prison system is great. As of August 2014, the system was operating at 140% capacity, and recent federal court rulings have held that California must reduce its prison population by 2016 and should implement measures designed to do so as soon as possible. Furthermore, classifying less people as “felons” would have a positive long-term societal impact, since many individuals who would otherwise face barriers from housing or employment could instead lead stable and productive lives.
The criminal justice system unfairly targets minorities and individuals of low socioeconomic status. By reducing sentencing on crimes that poor people are more likely to be charged with—petty theft, shoplifting, forgery, possession of stolen goods, and drug possession—the initiative seeks to rebalance the scale of justice. Proposition 47 explicitly excludes registered sex offenders from the new sentencing scheme, in addition to individuals with prior convictions for child molestation, murder, and certain gun crimes. Thus the law would keep dangerous criminals such as rapists and killers in prison, and these crimes would still be sentenced as felonies under the existing law. Additionally, theft of over $950 will still be considered a felony.
In summary, there are many reasons to support Proposition 47: to help solve California’s overcrowded prison problem; to save the state money by incarcerating fewer people and for shorter amounts of time; to save local governments money by reducing court workloads and the number of people under community supervision; to help the community by diverting saved funds to K-12 school programs, victim services, and rehabilitation programs; to further social justice efforts and safety by shifting focus away from low-level nonviolent crimes and on to serious violent crimes; and to use taxpayer dollars more effectively.
These sensible policy objectives directly align with SSDP’s mission and values. That is why I encourage you to vote YES on Proposition 47 on November 4, and to urge your friends and family in California to vote YES on 47 as well.
Learn more at www.safetyandschools.com.