The statewide initiative on Tuesday's ballot to reduce penalties for illicit drug use and petty theft is part of a multimillion-dollar campaign to revise sentencing laws in California and across the nation.
Five major foundations, headlined by a philanthropic group run by New York billionaire George Soros, have poured millions of dollars to push for changes in California's policies on crime and imprisonment. The campaign is aimed at shaping public opinion, media coverage, research and grass-roots activism on the issue.
Proposition 47 would reclassify possession of heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs, and theft of $950 or less, as misdemeanors in California. If the measure passes, California will become the first state to "de-felonize" all drug use, opening the door for similar efforts in other states.
"We hope we're setting a precedent for the nation," said Lynne Lyman, state director of the National Drug Policy Alliance, an active supporter of Proposition 47. "We are hoping it will signal that we don't need to be so tough on crime all the time."
Proponents of the ballot measure have raised $9 million — at least $2 million of which came from two of the foundations — for their campaign thus far. Opponents have raised just $526,000, state election records show.
That direct support, used for television advertising, gathering petition signatures and other campaign expenses, is dwarfed by the same foundations' larger funding of nonprofit advocacy, The Times found through interviews and federal tax records and internal documents.
Since 2011, the foundations have awarded at least $14 million in grants to almost three dozen California-based groups that are earmarked for "criminal justice reform" or to influence public opinion. Soros' Open Society Foundations in 2012 also gave a $50-million grant to the National Drug Policy Alliance to "advance drug policy reform" in states across the nation.
The coordination by a few wealthy foundations to change public policy represents a legitimate but worrying form of political influence, said Robert McGuire, who tracks such activity for the Center for Responsive Politics. The foundation grants are not disclosed publicly in the same way campaign contributions are reported. Foundation nonprofit tax filings often do not become public until two years after money is spent.
"Nonprofits are allowed to do this, but voters have a right to know what interest is trying to get them to vote a certain way," McGuire said.
The California effort was initiated by Tim Silard, who ran alternative sentencing programs for California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris when she was San Francisco district attorney, and Dan Zingale, who was chief of staff to then-first lady Maria Shriver.
Silard had taken over the Rosenberg Foundation, a Bay Area philanthropy known for seed grants to social justice projects, such as jobs for felons. Zingale is in charge of a new advocacy push by the $3-billion California Endowment, created to promote better health, to fund "change-making" activism, starting with federal health insurance, immigration laws and now criminal policy.
Silard and Zingale said they sought a strategy that could break the grip of "tough on crime" politics in California.
In 1994, California voters overwhelmingly passed one of the nation's first and toughest "three strikes" laws, mandating 25-to-life sentences for three-time felons. At the time, the violent crime rate was at an all-time high, and the memory of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Petaluma by a lifelong felon were still fresh in voters' minds.
Coalition members say they are driven by a belief that California — and the rest of the nation — locks up too many people for too long and that public safety would be better served by putting resources toward job training, mental health and drug addiction treatment. An opening to change that trend surfaced in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2011 ruling that conditions in California's overcrowded prisons were unconstitutionally dangerous, upholding a lower-court order to reduce the prison population.
A $25-billion state budget shortfall derailed plans to build more prisons. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's remedy — to divert a quarter of the state's felon population to county jails — provided what Silard called the "perfect storm" to bring about change.
By early 2012, a four-year, $16-million campaign to change California criminal policy was launched.
The California Endowment, the Rosenberg Foundation and Soros' Open Society Foundations were joined by the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, which is backed by Chuck Feeney, a founder of Duty Free Shoppers Ltd.
With more than $3.7 billion in assets and a record of financing drug legalization efforts around the world, Soros' foundations were the biggest player. A Soros representative was put on the three-person board steering the "campaign," according to a campaign official.
The coalition created an organization called Californians for Safety & Justice to coordinate the campaign. The organization operates under the umbrella of a San Francisco-based nonprofit clearinghouse, which effectively shields its donor list and financial operations from public view.
The organization's initial strategy was to lobby counties overwhelmed by an influx of convicted felons to local jails under the governor's new prison policy. The group urged the local governments to shun jail construction and instead divert the felons to monitored release and rehabilitation programs.
The coalition hoped to use this as a springboard to bring about "systemic criminal justice reform in California," especially sentencing reform, according to internal foundation records.
The foundations used grants to assemble a network of community groups, state organizations and think tanks to join the Californians for Safety and Justice campaign to change state criminal justice policy.
Funding went to student groups at UC Berkeley, to inner-city church ministries and to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. An emphasis was placed on advocacy groups that work in low-income communities: Some $800,000 was awarded to the National Council of La Raza and to South L.A.'s Community Coalition to organize and advocate for changes to the criminal justice system.
In 2013, Soros provided money to create a new organization called Vote Safe to launch Proposition 47. Soros, a hedge fund manager widely known for bankrolling progressive campaigns and a decade-long battle against the war on drugs, has a representative on Vote Safe's three-member advisory board. The campaign manager for both Citizens for Safety and Justice and Vote Safe is Lenore Anderson, another former aide to Kamala Harris who once ran the public safety offices in San Francisco and Oakland. Anderson said the ballot initiative was encouraged by polls that showed a softening in public attitudes toward criminal punishment.
"The whole country right now is going through transformation in attitudes on criminal justice," she said. "We felt it was a big moment."
Violent crime in California had dropped precipitously, hitting a 45-year low in 2011.
In the fall of 2012, California voters passed another Soros-backed initiative to lift three-strikes penalties for nonviolent felons.
The Ford Foundation has made criminal-justice issues a priority in recent years. In 2012, it provided a $1-million, two-year grant to the Los Angeles Times to increase news coverage of criminal justice, immigration and the Southwest border. The grant was later extended for an additional year, and part of the grant money has helped fund reporting by the author of this article.
The Times said that under the terms of the grant, it has sole control over coverage.
The Ford Foundation also provided a grant to an independent nonprofit group, the California Budget Project, for a fiscal analysis that would "advance reform of California's correctional system," according to Ford Foundation records. The California Endowment provided a grant to the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice to produce policy briefs on the financial impacts of Proposition 47.
Citizens for Safety and Justice also was directed by the California Endowment to try to place articles in newspapers, including 10 to 15 editorials and five news stories "on the need for deeper justice reforms," according to grant records provided by the California Endowment.
The California Endowment also spent $620,000 on a communications campaign that emphasized injustice in minority communities. The effort included a social media campaign that pitted state funding for prisons against funding for schools, according to reports released by the endowment.
Supporters of Proposition 47 also emphasize that drug laws have a disparate impact on Latino and African American communities.
Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance hammered on that point during a Proposition 47 rally at a Los Angeles church a week ago.
"The war on drugs and mass incarceration is just an extension of slavery," she said.