Prop. 47 Working? Depends Whom You Ask

is prop-47-workingThe premise behind the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, or Proposition 47, overwhelmingly approved by California voters in November 2014, was simple:

Reduce the penalties for nonserious, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession and minor theft and pass along the savings from less-crowded prisons and jails to programs that would reduce recidivism and crime and help victims.

But nothing about Prop. 47 has been simple in the 21 months since then.

As intended, the law has prevented nonviolent offenders from serving significant jail terms. But some law enforcement officials firmly believe — and there are equally strong opinions to the contrary — that these offenders are responsible for a documented uptick in crime since the law’s passage.

Also as intended, the state’s inmate population has been reduced, but the money budgeted from the savings for services in the first year is tens of millions less than expected.

And as offenders whose crimes were reclassified as misdemeanors find new opportunities now that they’re no longer felons, other offenders in the system have less incentive to seek rehabilitation through specialty courts. Those who want to help them are left to improvise and cross their fingers that offenders will seek assistance.

Here are six things to know about the law.

WHY IS CRIME UP?

Nothing about Prop. 47 is as contested as much as its effect on crime.

California’s violent and property crime rates rose in 2015 — up 8.4 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively, from 2014, a year that saw the lowest crime rates since the 1960s. However, there is disagreement about whether Prop. 47 is responsible and whether the increases were just a blip or the end of a 25-year trend of decreasing crime rates.

Some say suspects who once would have been booked into jail on felony theft or drug charges are instead being written misdemeanor citations and released on the spot, freeing them to commit even more offenses before they show up to court in the original case. Others say there’s not enough evidence to draw such a conclusion.

“I have not seen any studies that make a case for a correlation between Prop. 47 and increasing crimes anywhere,” said Riverside County Public Defender Steve Harmon. “What you’ll find is crime statistics go up and down. Whether there is cause and effect, or just two things happening with the stars being aligned, nobody knows.”

Brandon Martin, a research associate at the independent Public Policy Institute of California, said he has not seen any such studies either. The organization plans to begin one of its own late this year.

“It’s going to be difficult to figure out,” Martin said, “but we’re going to try.”

WHERE’S THE MONEY?

When Prop. 47 was written, the authors said more than $100 million saved through an expected reduction in the prison population would be available in the first year to distribute to crime-related programs. In the 12 months since the passage, a Stanford Justice Advocacy Project report said, the population fell by 13,000 inmates.

But, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections, only $39.4 million will be available in the state budget next spring to be distributed to three categories of beneficiaries: mental health and substance-abuse programs designed to reduce recidivism (65 percent of the total); K-12 truancy and dropout prevention programs (25 percent); and victim services (10 percent).

In a February 2016 report, the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office wrote that Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget “likely underestimates the savings and overestimates the costs resulting from the measure” and that he should have budgeted $100 million more for distribution.

The Board of State and Community Corrections committee in charge of deciding which agencies will receive the money next meets Wednesday and Thursday in Sacramento to discuss further the types of programs it would like to fund and the rules for agencies receiving the money.

CONVICTS GET RELIEF

Because Prop. 47 applied retroactively, offenders by the tens of thousands whose past crimes were reclassified to misdemeanors have applied for reduced sentences, if they were still in prison, and less-severe criminal records if they were already out.

Freed from the restrictions and rejections that come with a felony record, some offenders are getting a fresh start on life, joining the workforce and reuniting with their families.

Freed from the restrictions and rejections that come with a felony record, some offenders are getting a fresh start on life, joining the workforce and reuniting with their families.

“There is story after story about people able to get their jobs back, (and) housing,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of California Criminal Justice and Drug Policy. “There are very real, tangible benefits for their families and all of us.”

A person with a felony record can have difficulty gaining employment, obtaining a professional license and joining the military.

Dooley-Sammuli added that organizations continue to attempt to track down offenders who are eligible for resentencing. She estimated that two-thirds of those eligible have not filed petitions. The deadline to apply is November 2017.

CRIMINALS WISE UP

It’s not just the police, prosecutors and defense attorneys who know the new law. So do the criminals, some who are careful to operate within its boundaries.

McMahon said deputies have told him that some theft suspects are pointing out that their hauls are valued at less than $950, the threshold for the theft becoming a felony.

Harmon said some defendants, once convicted, are now asking a judge to impose jail time, instead of simply probation, in misdemeanor cases.

For the defendant, that means serving a short sentence — often just days because of jail crowding — without having to be supervised later by a probation officer. For law enforcement, it eliminates an important tool: People on probation are subject to searches of themselves or their property at any time without a warrant. Such searches can yield evidence of crimes, such as stolen property.

A frustrated Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin says there are “no consequences” for misdemeanor offenders.

Dooley-Sammuli rejects Hestrin’s contention. She noted that misdemeanors can bring jail time, fines, fees and barriers to obtaining some occupational licenses.

THE ‘FIX’ ISN’T IN

It wasn’t a month after Prop. 47 passed before lawmakers tried to change it, citing unintended consequences of reducing some drug and theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The two crimes that received the most legislative attention were possession of the so-called date rape drug and theft of a firearm (valued at less than $950).

Critics say the only reasons to possess the drug or steal the gun are to commit felonies.

But most efforts have failed.

AB 46, which would have again made possession of Rohypnol with the intent to commit sexual assault a felony, was introduced Dec. 1, 2014, but it died in committee. Brown later vetoed a similar Senate bill. SB 1182, introduced by state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, is the latest attempt. The Committee on Appropriations approved the bill June 15.

In June, Brown vetoed a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, that would have once again made stealing a firearm a felony punishable by 16 months in prison. The misdemeanor conviction carries up to a year in jail.

Other legislators have introduced similar bills on guns that failed to make the cut.

The drug legislation, critics say, is unnecessary because existing law already provides for felony punishment for the resulting crime. Some have argued that the gun bills were unnecessary because there are enough firearms laws that a prosecutor could find a way to charge a felony.

Legislators also failed to pass bills that would have allowed law enforcement to obtain DNA swabs from defendants convicted of misdemeanors that once were felonies. But in July 2015, Brown signed into a law a bill that allows search warrants to be issued for some misdemeanors that used to be felonies.

ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS

Since Prop. 47 took effect, fewer people have been enrolling in specialty drug and mental health courts. They require offenders to complete weeks-long, structured programs that offer counseling and life-skills classes in exchange for the charges being decreased or dismissed — an appealing option to those facing harsh felony penalties, but less appealing to those charged with misdemeanors who will be out of jail within days.

As a result, the drug and mental health courts in Riverside County were consolidated in the past year.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Becky L. Dugan, who has supervised the court’s handling of the Prop. 47 cases, noted that the court still can refer defendants to outside services such as anger management, parenting, life skills and résumé writing.

In San Bernardino County, participation in drug court is down 15 percent to 20 percent from pre-Prop. 47 levels, Superior Court spokesman Dennis Smith said, although mental health and veterans courts largely have been unaffected.

Officials aren’t giving up on helping the offenders, however.

Hestrin is forming the Repeat Offender Alternatives and Recidivism Reduction program “to combat the revolving door recidivism created by the passage of Proposition 47,” according to his 2015 year-end report. ROARR will partner with Pacific Educational Services, which provides anger management, gang intervention and life-skills programs as well as substance-abuse counseling.

Defendants who complete the voluntary program will be eligible to have their cases dismissed.

“We’re building this in the hope and with some optimism that we are going to fix this situation,” Hestrin said. “We are not always going to have a situation in Riverside County where there are no consequences for misdemeanor offenders. What we’re really hoping for is … there will be a percentage of offenders who want to get their lives together.”

Brian Rokos
Southern California News Group

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