Criminal Injustice: Attempting Reform with Prop 47

Isn’t it an outrage that one of the richest, industrialized nations on this planet incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation on Earth? This reality is indicative of an overly-punitive culture that neglects mental health, drug abuse, and poverty issues by simply locking up people. Common sense dictates that for social and financial reasons, we must lower our prison and jail populations.

So who should we release? In California, voters enacted Prop 47, which reclassified certain felonies, felonies commonly associated with non-violent drug addicts, into misdemeanors. These new misdemeanors are the possession of concentrated cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The remaining misdemeanors are shoplifting, forgery, fraud, receipt of stolen property, and car theft of items valued at $950 or less.

When someone commits a misdemeanor, if the arresting officer believes that there is a reasonable likelihood that the individual will continue committing the offense or that the individual presents a harm to property or other persons, the officer may arrest and book the individual. Then, the individual is held for up to 48 hours at an arresting agency (the sheriff’s department, police department, or wherever the individual is booked), is brought before the judge and told of his charges, and then held in county jail until trial unless the individual can post bail.

Absent these factors, the offender must be released. The arresting officer must simply “cite” the offender, or give written notice of their duty to appear in court on a particular date. This mandate is designed to keep many non-threatening drug users as possible out of jail where their mental health is more likely to deteriorate and their rate of recidivism increases.

Some California law enforcement officials complain that Prop 47 only allows them to cite and release these particular offenders. Allegedly, this prevents the officers from stopping the cycle of petty theft and drug abuse. As Kirk Albanese, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, states, “It’s a vicious cycle . . . [the offender has] an addiction, we are not holding you accountable, and you’re back into the cycle of using. How do you support that habit? Stealing. Our burglaries are up, car theft is up, break-ins are up—they are all up.”

This blog series intends to identify some disconnects between Proposition 47’s language and its implementation by law enforcement, with a focus on the way in which Prop 47 affects local jail and pretrial populations.

As a second year Santa Clara University law student and Santa Clara County native with an educational background from UC Berkeley, I have become more aware of a marginalized population affected by poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness. I want to educate myself regarding California’s latest initiatives for criminal justice reform and become an advocate for indigent clients who are often segregated from society by social stigma and incarceration.