California’s Prop 47 could free one in five inmates from state prisons

Photo credit: hannes.a.schwetz via flickr

A ballot initiative in California could result in the early release of one in five of the inmates in the state’s prison system. Supporters of Proposition 47 say it could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year by reducing the prison population and diverting the money to drug treatment and education. Prop 47 represents the most sweeping challenge yet to the sentencing law known as Three Strikes, which many progressives say is unfair and disproportionate, and which some conservatives and many fiscal conservatives say is unaffordable. FSRN’s Larry Buhl has more from Los Angeles.

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In 1994 California voters passed the nation’s toughest sentencing law by mandating a minimum sentence of 25-to-life for a third criminal offense if the first two were felonies. The Three Strike law came in the wake of the early 90s so-called crack cocaine epidemic, when tough on crime rhetoric was a centerpiece of many campaign platforms. To many, Three Strikes seemed sensible: solve the revolving door of criminal justice by imposing a mandatory minimum sentence for repeat violent offenders and drug users. Similar laws passed in 23 other states. In most, all three offenses must be serious or violent. But in California the third strike could be for any offense, even a minor offense like petty theft.

Twenty years later, California voters may choose to roll it back via Proposition 47 which would reduce some crimes that are now felonies—such as grand theft, shoplifting, check forgery and drug possession—to misdemeanors. It would also reduce the length of sentences for those crimes by about a third. Those found guilty would be sent to county facilities instead of state prisons.

California law enforcement groups, sheriffs and prosecutors and many victims’ rights groups, the same coalition that pressed for Three Strikes, strongly oppose Prop 47.

“Prop 47 calls for completely rearranging a whole host of crimes from felonies to misdemeanors,” says Christopher Boyd, President of the California Police Chiefs Association. He warns that two key sentence reductions under Prop 47, stealing a gun worth less than $950 and possessing a date-rape drug, would put more violent criminals out on the streets. “The proponents are wanting us to believe these are low level crimes. But when you look at the firearms issue and the drugs issue, it’s obviously extremely dangerous and not in the interest of public safety but no, judges won’t have discretion on these crimes listed within Prop 47.”

But supporters of 47 point to statistics that show violent crimes are still at historic lows in California, two years after voters passed prop 36 which amended Three Strikes to allow some lifers out early if their third strike conviction was not serious or violent.

Karen Lane is Prevention Network Director Community Coalition in South Los Angeles. She says the tide has turned on public opinion about sentencing largely due to economic reasons.

“California spends sixty two thousand dollars to incarcerate one person, we spend about seven thousand dollars to educate one student in the K-12 system,” notes Lane. “When tax payers hear that, that’s not how they want their money spent. They want to invest in people. They want to invest in our future and not in holding people in cages for very minor non-violent crimes.”

Religious leaders across the state have also come out in favor of Prop 47.

“I think people are becoming familiar with the fact that when you do this to people, you in fact do not restore them to functioning members of society,” says Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting and project coordinator for Justice Not Jails. “Prop 47 and everything we’re working on is changing the model from retributive to restorative justice. And that’s a big, big deal for people in the middle, people who are not necessarily crime victims or directly affected, but who do understand that what we have now isn’t working and it’s vastly too expensive.”

It’s not often that a coalition of prison reform advocates, faith leaders and fiscal conservatives come together on an issue, but the push to reduce harsh sentencing laws is one that crosses ideological boundaries. High profile supporters of Prop 47 include both Rapper Jay Z, and former Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

Nationwide, the push to roll back mandatory minimum sentencing has a strong supporter in the often-touted 2016 Republican Presidential contender Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He spoke to the Urban League earlier this year. “I say it’s time to restore sanity to sentencing by ending mandatory minimums now,” said Paul, who this summer teamed up with Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey up to introduce the REDEEM act, which would let adults with nonviolent offenses seal their criminal records, so that they wouldn’t be barred from many types of employment. They say that and other measures in the REDEEM act will help to break the cycle of poverty and violence. REDEEM has little chance of passing in this session of Congress. And neither Paul nor Booker has weighed in on Prop 47.

But legal scholars say that, if it passes, Prop 47 could set a precedent for changes in other states. Kareem Creighton, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says “I think if the California project is successful, and you can show that these new orientations around criminal justice leads to savings and doesn’t lead to an increase in crimes, certainly violent crimes, many states will look at that favorably and think ‘hey this is a way we can continue to do our jobs as cops and as prison officials’ but also do it in a smart way.” Creighton adds that “a legislator might well look at this system and say, ‘I need to figure out a way of incorporating that into a way we do business.’ Governors, prosecutors and the like can also do that as well.”

Polling shows that Prop 47 stands a decent chance of passing. Other states are watching the results closely. Because as California goes – at least prison reform advocates hope – so goes the nation.

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