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PROP 47: Big Changes in the Criminal Justice System

Posted by Ryan Wilber | Nov 12, 2014 | 0 Comments

On November 4, California voters went to the polls and voted in favor of Proposition 47, known as the “Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative.” The measure passed with nearly 60 percent approval.[1] According to supporters, the goal of Prop 47 is to “Change the lowest-level, nonviolent crimes such as simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors – and dedicate the savings to crime prevention.”[2] The Los Angeles Times called the passage of Prop 47a “jolt” to the justice system,[3] and the Sacramento Bee remarked that “landmark change” is on the way.[4]

In California, crimes are classified into three categories: felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions.[5] Typically, felons are sent to state prison, misdemeanor violators are sent to county jail, and infraction violations only require a fine.[6] Of course, these penalties are not set in stone and are subject to countless exceptions, including probation and restitution. However, because of Prop 47, some crimes that were once classified as felonies will now be misdemeanors, though only those that are nonserious and nonviolent. The change brought by Prop 47 will only effect a limited amount of property and drug crimes.

Many factors contributed to the widespread support for Prop 47, such as budgetary concerns, changing attitudes towards drug policy, and a recent United States Supreme Court ruling which required California to address the massive overcrowding in the state prisons.[7] The American Civil Liberties Union was the largest supporter of Prop 47, and county sheriff's departments and prosecutor offices were the biggest opponents. But, in an example of “politics making strange bedfellows,” former Republican senator Newt Gingrich supported Prop 47, while Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein opposed the proposition.

Now that the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” (another name for Prop 47) has passed, what does it actually mean? Well, “nonserious, nonviolent crimes like petty theft and drug possession” will be charged as misdemeanors rather than felonies, unless the defendant has a prior conviction for certain felonies, such as murder, rape, or certain sex and gun offenses.[8] Those currently in prison or jail for such crimes will be eligible for resentencing, so long as they pass a “thorough review and risk assessment” to ensure they do not pose a danger to the public.[9] Prop 47 also creates a “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund” which allocates funds for crime prevention in K-12 schools, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and trauma services for crime victims.[10]

Another significant change to the Penal Code will adjust the amount upwards that is necessary for theft, bad checks, or forgery to be considered a felony. Under the old system, any theft over $450 was considered a felony, while the new threshold will be $950.[11] This mirrors changes in more conservative states like Mississippi and South Carolina, which raised their cutoffs to $1,000 and $2,000, respectively.[12]

For drugs, including heroin and cocaine, possession for personal use will now be considered a misdemeanor instead of a felony.[13] Drug offenders will have a greater opportunity to receive much needed treatment and counseling rather than jail.[14] Those charged with marijuana possession for personal use can be charged with infractions instead of misdemeanors.[15]

However, most of the Penal Code will remain unchanged. Because Prop 47 only applies to “nonserious, nonviolent crimes like petty theft and drug possession,” crimes like assault, battery, burglary, robbery, and drug sales will still be felonies.[16] Those crimes can be extremely dangerous to the public, and Prop 47 recognizes that fact and leaves those crimes as felonies. Also, sex offenses and child sexual assault will remain felonies.[17] In addition, the California Business and Professions codes, which administers many of the duties of judges, attorneys, and other professionals, as well as contains rules for controlled substances, remains unchanged.

Opponents of the proposition say it is “dangerous and radical” and will give inmates a “Get Out of Prison Free” cards.[18]However, proponents of Prop 47 point to the waste of imprisoning low level non-violent offenders in overcrowded prisons, erasing the stigma of felony convictions, and the estimated “$750 million to $1.25 billion in savings over the next five years.”[19]

Of course, any benefits or risks may take years to be seen. What is clear, is that the voters of California have spoken in favor of the new laws. Proposition 47 appealed to millions of voters across the political spectrum, as well as donors and supporters as wide ranging as Jay Z, Reed Hastings (CEO Netflix), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), and Bishop Jaime Soto, president of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops.[20] If Prop 47 works as planned, Californians will get an improved justice system, treatment for those that need it, and millions of dollars in taxpayer savings.

[1] Prop 47. http://vote.sos.ca.gov/returns/ballot-measures/
[2] Yes on 47, Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools. http://www.safetyandschools.com/
[3] http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-me-ff-pol-proposition47-20141106-story.html#page=1
[4] http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/election/article3591130.html
[5] California Penal Code section 16.
[6] California Penal Code section 17, 18, 19.6.
[7] Brown v. Plata (2011) 131 S.Ct. 1910.
[8] http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2014/general/pdf/text-of-proposed-laws1.pdf
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid, see also Cal. Pen. Code, §§ 476a(b), 487.
[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/06/us/california-voters-to-decide-on-sending-fewer-criminals-to-prison.html?_r=0
[13] http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2014/general/pdf/text-of-proposed-laws1.pdf
[14] http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-me-ff-pol-proposition47-20141106-story.html#page=1
[15] Ibid.
[16] http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2014/general/pdf/text-of-proposed-laws1.pdf
[17] Ibid.
[18] http://www.californiapolicechiefs.org/proposition-47
[19] http://www.safetyandschools.com/about-the-act/
[20] http://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_47,_Reduced_Penalties_for_Some_Crimes_Initiative_(2014)

About the Author

Ryan Wilber

R. Ryan Wilber has wanted to be a criminal defense litigator since his first year of college. While attending the Santa Rosa Junior College, Ryan concentrated on communications, criminal justice, and sociology. Notably, Ryan experienced a lecture from Greg Jacobs, the prosecutor in the Richard Al...


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