On November 4, 2014, Californian voters passed Proposition 47, titled the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative. The initiative reduces the classification of most “nonserious and nonviolent drug crimes” from felonies to misdemeanor charges.[i] It was immediately met by many, especially in law enforcement circles, as the End of Days. We want to take a minute to discuss, in two articles, what Prop. 47 does and does not do, and why.
Because most people do not know the difference between felonies and misdemeanors, we should start there. Felonies are distinguished from misdemeanors by the possible level of punishment.[ii] Someone convicted of a misdemeanor can only be sentenced to a maximum of one year (or shorter depending on the statute) in jail while those convicted of felonies may receive prison sentences of longer than a year or death. In California, for all practical purposes, the death penalty is so rarely applied and so often blocked by court decisions, that it is not really on the table. However, the consequences of being a convicted felon, even upon release from prison is very real.
The passage of Proposition 47, in addition to the prior passing of Proposition 36, in 2012, allows for California to take a step toward decreasing its massive prison population and reducing the State’s burden to fund overcrowded prisons. Specifically, the passage of Proposition 47 imposed the following reforms:
- It mandates that “nonviolent and nonserious crimes” be treated as misdemeanors for all nonviolent offenders, who have no history of rape, murder, certain sex offenses, and certain drug crimes.[iii]
- It permits the resentencing of all California inmates currently serving prison terms for crimes that were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors by the passage of the Proposition. An estimated 10,000 inmates will be eligible for reduced sentences through resentencing of their crimes as misdemeanor instead of felony convictions.[iv]
- It requires judges resentencing inmates to conduct a risk assessment and a “thorough review” of the inmates prior to resentencing to ensure that they do not pose a risk to the community.[v]
- Finally, the Proposition creates a “Safe Neighborhood and Schools” Fund. California will provide appropriations to the fund based on the amount of money that is saved by the initiative compared to the previous year.[vi]
One of the most prominent reforms that the Proposition provides for is for petty theft (or shoplifting) to be treated as a misdemeanor when the value of the item is below $950.[vii] Prior to the Proposition, a person convicted of a petty theft who had a prior conviction for petty theft could be charged with a felony. Under California’s previous three strikes law, this resulted in people being sentenced to 25 years to life for shoplifting inexpensive items, such as children’s videotapes.[viii] Proposition 47 provides attempts to reduce California’s prison population, which rose from approximately 20,000 in 1980 to a maximum of 163,000 in 2006.[ix] The California inmate population stood at nearly 136,000 on December 31, 2013.[x] This massive increase in the prison population has become unsustainable, even in light of the growth in prisons created in that time span. And this has led to overcrowding and costly litigation. Some jurisdictions have failed to meet required, court-ordered changes for almost 20 years. When inmates file lawsuits based on such overcrowding and failures to abide by court decrees, the taxpayers find themselves in a proverbial pickle and writing actual checks.
The Proposition also requires that forgery, fraud, receipt of stolen property, grand theft, and writing a bad check be considered misdemeanors when the value of the misappropriated money or property is less than $950.[xi] This is designed to keep pace with the realistic change in property value, but it is controversial. For those senior citizens who fall prey to such schemes, we can expect to see the more creative prosecutors taking a hard look at the California Elder Abuse statutes to find ways to increase penalties.
Proposition 47 also marks a move toward treating illegal drug usage as a less serious offense and more of a health problem than a criminal one. Proposition 47 provides that all charges related to personal use of illegal substances are now misdemeanor offenses and not felonies.[xii]
During the run-up to the vote on Proposition 47, there were misleading statements made by organizations like the Alliance for a Safer California and the California Police Chiefs’ Association regarding what Proposition 47 would do, even stating “facts” about what the Proposition would do that are directly contradicted in the Proposition itself.[xiii] These organization deliberately misinformed voters that the Proposition, if passed, would release violent offenders like murderers, rapists, and child molesters.[xiv] These allegations are all false, as the Proposition specifically exempts those convicted of violent crimes from its coverage.[xv] Additionally, it requires judges to conduct a risk assessment and a thorough analysis of the inmate’s criminal background, prior to the resentencing of anyone charged with one of these crimes as a felony, to assure that if the person is released, he or she will not pose a risk to the community.[xvi] Despite the false allegations made against it to dissuade voters from adopting it, Proposition 47 is an important further step toward undoing the harm that over-criminalization has done to nonviolent offenders and their families, as well as benefiting the state by saving taxpayer dollars from funding California’s bloated Prison system.