Prop 47: Shorter Sentences, Reclassification, and Dispelling the Myth that It’s All for Nothing

It’s February 26, 2016 at 11:00 pm, and you have been pulled over for speeding. An officer, while using his flashlight to examine your driver’s license, notices a plastic bag with white powder on the passenger seat. He takes the bag and arrests you for committing a misdemeanor, the simple possession of cocaine. He takes you to an arresting agency where you are booked, held for up to 48 hours, and are later informed of your misdemeanor charge by a judge.  Bail is set at a misdemeanor-level price of $5,000 (PDF, page 135) and you are able to pay a bail bond company 10% of the bail in order be released with a promise to appear in court. Earlier that day, a homeless drug addict is arrested for petty theft, and is charged with her third misdemeanor. Unlike you, she cannot afford 10% of her bail and will remain in jail until she goes to court. Both of you face a county jail term of no more than six months. Cal. Penal Code § 19.

Had it been February 26, 2014, however, you both would have been arrested for a felony. Initially, the effect would have been the same: both of you would have been booked, held up to 48 hours, and then arraigned. But from then on, the circumstances would become much more severe. Bail for both of you would have been set at a higher felony-level, maybe $25,000 (PDF, page 29). Also, if either of you were found or pleaded guilty, you would have been sentenced to at least 16 months in “county jail-prison” as a non-violent felon. Cal. Penal Code § 18. See also Cal. Penal Code § 1170(h). This lengthened stay in county jail could potentially affect your physical and mental health, increasing your likelihood of recidivism. Further, upon release, the felony conviction would probably prevent you from obtaining employment in law enforcement as well as in positions involving children, the elderly, or disabled people.

Prop 47 was enacted on November 5, 2014. It reclassifies drug possession and petty theft of property valued at $950 or less as misdemeanors. California voters wanted to reform our criminal justice system, giving drug users a better chance at rehabilitation by lowering some common offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, dramatically shortening the maximum jail sentence and removing the stigma of being a convicted felon in later life.

Nevertheless, some law enforcement officers have criticized Prop 47 for allowing offenders to be released earlier into society or to serve no time at all, enabling these individuals to engage in the same crimes that support their drug addictions. Allegedly, this lack of accountability facing Prop 47 misdemeanants has raised crime rates in some places.

However, more data is needed to support these claims. First, the Office of the Attorney General does not have misdemeanor arrest rates for 2015, the year Prop 47 took place. Furthermore, an accurate measure of Prop 47 would require law enforcement to document all Prop 47 misdemeanants. If some of those individuals recidivate, law enforcement needs to record each new crime. That way, the public could determine if Prop 47 offenders are more likely to commit more Prop 47 crimes. Simply saying that certain crime rates are up does not illustrate exactly who is committing these crimes.

What can be determined is that, as of October 2015, California’s jail population dropped by 9,000 inmates since Prop 47’s implementation. A Stanford Law School study explains how Prop 47 also assisted in lowering the population, a population once considered “unconstitutionally overcrowded” by the United States Supreme Court.

In addition to lowering both jail and prison populations, Prop 47 also benefits convicted felons of non-violent crimes who have already served their time and are now back in society. These individuals can have their criminal records adjusted, pursuant to California Penal Code section 1170.18. This adjustment allows them to be employed in related to law enforcement or with children, elderly people, or disabled people.

Prop 47 excludes violent offenders from its benefits. A violent offender may not have her time reduced or her criminal record adjusted to reflect Prop 47’s reclassification. Violent felonies include murder, vehicular manslaughter, rape, child abuse, and human trafficking. San Diego’s Office of the Public Defender keeps a non-exhaustive list of violent crimes that automatically disqualify offenders from Prop 47.

It is too early to tell if Prop 47 is affecting crime levels, especially when we are not tracking the types of crimes that Prop 47 misdemeanants allegedly keep committing.   The controversy does not end there, however. Prop 47 also created the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, a fund designed to redistribute the money saved from prison and jail population decreases into public schools, rehabilitation programs, and the California’s Victims’ Compensation Fund.   Allegedly, Prop 47 has failed to save as much money as hoped. My next post will explore this controversy, highlighting discrepancies between state and county reporting.