Less than three months ago, California voters adopted Proposition 47, an initiative that reduced six felonies to misdemeanors. By far, most of the affected crimes are for drug possession.
It's not always easy to glean a clear statement from such a vote beyond the basic fact of it: Voters wanted those crimes to be treated as misdemeanors instead of felonies. Still, it's a fairly safe assumption that voters wanted their criminal justice resources to be focused less on crimes they considered less serious, especially drug possession.
There is a long-standing distinction between misdemeanors and felonies. It's a distinction based on a sensible principle — more serious crimes should carry more serious consequences — and of course the distinction has teeth, or why bother making it?
In California, for example, felonies are punishable by more than a year in county jail or state prison; misdemeanors by a year or less and in jail only. Felonies add up, so that offenders serve not just the time assigned to each crime, but additional “enhancement” time for committing second and third felonies; misdemeanants serve only the sentence assigned to each crime and don't get additional time for recidivism. Felonies carry serious federal immigration consequences even for noncitizens living in the country legally; misdemeanors don't. Felons can be required to disclose their criminal records when seeking jobs, housing and government aid, and often are left unable to house and feed themselves and their families using legitimate means. Misdemeanants generally don't have to disclose their convictions and therefore, importantly, have an easier time making a new start after the sentence is served.
And suspects arrested on felony charges have to provide DNA samples, which are kept forever in a databank. Misdemeanants don't have to render up DNA samples.
Now Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a Sacramento Democrat, is carrying a bill to compel DNA collection for misdemeanors for the first time in California. But not for all misdemeanors — just for the former felonies covered by Proposition 47. SB 390 would in essence continue treating people convicted for drug possession and the other misdemeanor charges covered by the initiative as felons for DNA purposes. It's a bad idea.
Because Californians moved drug possession from the felony to the misdemeanor side of the ledger, it is exceedingly difficult to see why it would make sense — especially now, just a few months after Proposition 47 took effect — to reverse course and reinstitute felony-like attributes for crimes that voters so recently reclassified. Just as it would make no sense to require misdemeanants to check the “felon” box on a job application or suffer other consequences of a felony conviction, it would be foolish to add people convicted of possession — by far the majority of Proposition 47 defendants — to a database of permanent persons of interest in rapes, murders and other crimes.
We will say this about Cooper's bill: At least it would apply only to people who have been convicted, and not merely arrested, on misdemeanor charges. California law currently requires DNA collection for anyone even arrested for a felony. That's a grievous intrusion into the privacy rights of people not convicted of a crime, many of whom will no doubt be acquitted but whose DNA will remain in the database in perpetuity.
But if the state is going to add misdemeanor convictions to the DNA mix, why just those recently converted under Proposition 47? Why not do it for all misdemeanors, especially those that are far more serious than the crimes that used to be felonies before the vote? Domestic violence, child endangerment, drunk driving — all are more dangerous than the six crimes that voters downgraded. Or why not do it for all people, whether or not they were ever arrested? Either move would be a monumental expansion but at least would be part of an honest discussion about the scope and purpose of the state's DNA program.
It's quite apparent, though, that the bill has less to do with honest debate than a desire by some to ignore Proposition 47 by reattaching felony attributes to crimes that Californians decided to make misdemeanors. It's not an issue ripe for relitigation. Lawmakers should focus on making the new criminal justice landscape work, not on trying to erase it.