Weakening Prop 57 Reinforces Mass Incarceration

Weakening Prop 57

Proposition 57, passed in November 2016 by 64 percent of California voters, was a long awaited, much needed criminal and juvenile justice reform measure. Not only did it scale back overly punitive juvenile justice sentencing practices, it also created a way to reduce mass incarceration in California’s prisons.

Prop 57 now faces opposition in the form of new legislation from those who believe the law goes too far in extending sentencing reductions to people convicted of serious or violent offenses. However, if reforms are to effectively address the root causes of mass incarceration, they must go beyond focusing only on nonviolent offenses and additionally reduce lengthy sentences for violent crimes.

Prop 57 allows any person serving a prison sentence for a nonviolent felony to be eligible for parole after completing the term of their longest sentence. Additionally, it allowed California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to create regulations making incarcerated men and women eligible to earn “Good Conduct Credits” and credits for participating in rehabilitative programs.

This year, there were at least eight bills introduced to the California Legislature seeking to broaden the definition of violent crimes to include more offenses, and thereby decrease eligibility for Prop 57 reforms. These bills serve only to dilute reform efforts and render them less effective in improving public safety or reducing California’s prison population. Changing the categories of nonviolent or violent offenses will not decrease the likelihood that these crimes will be committed, but will certainly bolster an unjust system of mass incarceration that fails to promote rehabilitation.

Prior to the passage of Prop 57, some law enforcement officials and district attorneys argued that the initiative’s focus on nonviolent offenses misled voters since the category of nonviolent includes offenses that some would consider violent, such as domestic violence or human trafficking. Opponents of the initiative also said the law would cause the “early release” of “hardcore criminals,” compromising public safety, and advocated for more restricted parole eligibility and credit earning.

This distinction between violent and nonviolent fails to consider the big picture of improving public safety. The opposition implies that those currently incarcerated will either not be released from prison or that the length of a prison sentence guarantees public safety. This is not the case. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, about 75 percent of California’s prison population is serving determinant sentences, and about 95 percent of those incarcerated in state prisons will be released at some point.

CJCJ staff meets with the San Quentin News team, many of whom are men whom are serving long sentences for violent offenses but are now committed to violence reduction and mentoring young men.

As former California State Senator Mark Leno stated during a Prop 57 hearing, “The question isn’t whether we want them to come out, but how we want them to come out.” In California, approximately 70 percent of those in state prisons have committed “crimes against persons,” which include many violent offenses such as murder, rape, and others. Limiting eligibility for, or decreasing incentives to participate in, Prop 57 reforms maintains the status quo by focusing on punishment instead of long-term public safety through incentivized rehabilitative programming for this population.

Moreover, apart from the crippling costs of mass incarceration removing resources from services proven to increase health and safety, lengthy sentences also decrease community access to valuable human capital. For example, Oakland man, Emile DeWeaver, is currently serving a 67-year-to-life sentence in San Quentin because of a violent offense he committed at 18 years old. In an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News, he said he has since changed: “I’ve dedicated my life to stopping violence, and I learned that dedication from violent felons. They taught me that my violence as a teenager stemmed from unresolved traumas I experienced as a child.” Though Emile and his colleagues are now positive influences and want to give back to their communities, they are not eligible for Prop 57 reforms.

The criminal justice system does not serve a purpose if we will not allow men and women who have demonstrated personal change and growth to be released from prison so that they may to contribute to their communities, their families, or society. The legislation and opposition seeking to limit eligibility for Prop 57 reforms are only hindering the process of rehabilitation, and continuing the practices that lead to mass incarceration.

Erica Webster
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice

About Erica Webster

Erica Webster is a member of the policy team at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.


  1. Some offenses not currently classed as “violent” do involve physical intrusions on people and likely involve violence.
    HOWEVER, reclassifying them as “violent” now is more than matter of correcting definitions, as the article shows.
    It is a flaw, a serious one, in Prop. 57 (and in 47 before it — reducing drug possession sentences for those without “violent” priors) to have accepted the violent designation as an automatic exclusion, without regard to the assessment (and reassessment) of the person and without consideration of the potential of supportive services before and after release.
    The term “violent” brings up images which activate the “alarm-survival” circuitry in our brains. That’s natural. The problem is that we may let that arousal write policy. The better course is to restore balanced thinking and write policy from that state of mind.