Jails and prisons across the United States are overcrowded. In fiscal year 2010 forty states took part in a survey to ascertain the cost of incarceration. The figure reached an astonishing 39 billion dollars, which was 5.4 billion dollars more than was budgeted. Californians took a step to alleviate a portion of the problem by passing proposition 47. It became effective on November 5th.
Prop 47 reduces a list of low-level felonies to misdemeanors. 59 percent of voters agreed with its principle. California has yet to comply with a federal court’s ruling that overcrowding in the state’s penitentiaries must be reduce; this law will make an estimated 4,700 inmates available for release.
Prisoners who qualify will be released and the felony removed from their record. Effected offenses include possession of stolen property, forgery, drug possession, theft, and shoplifting or credit card fraud when the amount was less than 950 dollars. Inmates with multiple convictions will be evaluated on an individual basis. Those individuals convicted of sex crimes or crimes committed with acts of violence are not eligible.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has already received more than 1,000 petitions. Many of those affected have simply been released and others have accepted plea bargains. The new law also affects previously sentenced inmates by reducing their sentence. Thirteen other states classify drug possession as a misdemeanor; California is the first to reclassify multiple offenses. Already estimates have risen to the hundreds of millions in savings for the state.
To some it was a bit of a surprise. 20 years ago California voters passed a ‘three strike’ rule which required an individual convicted of two or more crimes to receive a mandatory 25 year to life sentence upon a third conviction, even if it was non-violent.
Support for the law came from a variety of organizations and individuals. The spectrum was as wide as former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to rapper ‘Jay-Z.’ Opposition came from law enforcement agencies of all genre. The claimed the proposition would result in increased criminal activity.
San Diego’s Sheriff, Bill Gore, is not pleased with the passing of Prop 47. Although the majority of what are now misdemeanors will receive a ticket with a promise to appear in court, he says his department will continue to arrest persons in possession of any controlled substance other than marijuana. Gore predicts a rise in crimes such as home burglaries and general theft. He says he hopes the increase will not include violent crime.
Laura Fink is a Public Policy Analyst. She reports that her research in states which have passed similar laws the prison population has been reduced and the crime rate has been lowered.
The reduction in numbers of inmates who were incarcerated for non-violent crimes will create one problem. Large numbers of these inmates have been used to fight forest fires in the Golden State. California has relied on the assistance of these men for decades; now the pool will be greatly reduced.
The major funding for the passage of Prop 47 came from the ACLU.
By James Turnage