Just over 100 days have passed since California voters adopted Proposition 47, which reduced six specific felonies to misdemeanors; and it will be nine more months before the state quantifies and distributes the first year's worth of savings it will accumulate by no longer imprisoning so many felons. So, of course, it's far too early to assess what the initiative has accomplished and what problems, if any, have emerged.
Still, there is enough early information to allow the state Legislative Analyst's Office to note, as it did Tuesday, that in addition to those expected state savings, California's 58 counties are already being relieved of spending “several hundred million dollars annually” that they formerly had to allocate for prosecuting, locking up and supervising suspected and convicted felons locally. Proposition 47 backers focused their campaign on the state savings; the local windfall that is currently materializing is a bonus.
So local governments already have spending decisions to make. They can still arrest and jail people for the former felonies. They can also seek effective alternatives to incarceration.
Before Proposition 47 and criminal justice realignment, which began three years earlier, cities and counties had a financial incentive to send as many offenders as possible to state prison, where they would be off the local budget books and on the state's. Now, local governments no longer have that option, so they have to determine the most cost-effective way of dealing with drug and other low-level crimes locally, and they have to shoulder the consequences of recidivism — and of public reaction to their decisions. They are becoming accountable.
That's what makes last week's decision by the Lancaster City Council so deliriously wrongheaded.
The Lancaster council voted to in effect reject Proposition 47's landslide victory and simply tack on its own administrative fines to the new misdemeanors. By enhancing penalties Californians had voted to reduce, the council effectively created its own Lancaster-only enforcement scheme.
It's highly doubtful that courts will uphold a local ordinance to supplement state criminal penalties, but the real problem is that the Lancaster law rests on the folklore that sheriff's deputies can't or won't arrest for misdemeanors, and that the district attorney's office doesn't prosecute them.
That's not true. Lancaster contracts with both agencies, and both have the discretion to enforce the new misdemeanor laws — and, increasingly, the resources to do it. City leaders would be wise to stop wishing away Proposition 47 and start understanding the choices it gives them, and the accountability that goes with them.