Proposition 47 would do a great deal to stop the ongoing and unnecessary flow of Californians to prison for nonviolent and nonserious offenses and would, crucially, reduce the return flow of offenders from prison back to their neighborhoods in a condition — hardened by their experience, hampered by their felony records, unready for employment or education, likely mentally ill or addicted — that leaves them only too likely to offend again. It is a good and timely measure that can help the state make smarter use of its criminal justice and incarceration resources. The Times strongly recommends a "yes" vote on Proposition 47.
The measure has three parts. It would reduce sentences in California for a handful of petty crimes — drug possession and some types of theft, such as shoplifting — that currently are chargeable as either misdemeanors or felonies but should be just misdemeanors. It would open a three-year window during which inmates serving felony sentences for these crimes could apply to have their sentences reduced. And it would direct the savings from lowering the prison population to be spent on the kinds of things that, as data have shown time and again, keep significant numbers of former inmates from re-offending: substance abuse and mental health treatment, reentry support and similar services that also help crime-battered neighborhoods. Much of the savings would also be spent on truancy prevention and support for crime victims.
Opponents offer arguments that are familiar for their fear-mongering tactics but are new in some of their particulars: baseless yet ominous warnings that waves of dangerous criminals will be released; odd predictions about, of all things, date rape; acknowledgment that current sentencing is often excessive and counterproductive, but excuses for not previously having made sensible changes.
The actual problem with the initiative is that it is an initiative. Criminal sentencing laws should not have to be made by ballot measure. The preferred way of making these needed changes would be through a sentencing commission that operates outside the political dynamic and is not freighted by headlines, and that recommends sentences as a package to the Legislature. But lawmakers have never taken serious steps toward convening such a commission.
Or, ideally, the same Legislature that over the years has adopted slapdash criminal sentences to appear tough on crime and to cater to various interest groups would undo some of the damage it has caused — the unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons, the overtaxed budgets, the tens of thousands of people caught along with their families and communities in the cycle of offense, imprisonment and re-offense — by selectively reducing sentences and allocating resources for prevention.
But experience shows that lawmakers, so comfortable with adding new crimes and increasing sentences, are generally incapable of lowering them in the face of pressure from law enforcement and victims' interest groups, even when overwhelming evidence points to better safety, greater savings and other positive outcomes from decreased penalties.
And lawmakers promise funding for prevention and reentry just as soon as the budget is fat enough to make it available, but that day never seems to come. That lack of progress has proved true even now, when the Legislature is dominated by supermajorities of Democrats who fancy themselves more enlightened on this issue than Republicans.
This is what the initiative system is for — to allow Californians as a last resort to push past their Legislature when it proves unequal to the task at hand.
Among the skeptics' arguments is that California just adopted a policy called "criminal justice realignment" three years ago and is still trying to get used to it. But realignment — AB 109, adopted in 2011 — merely reallocates corrections responsibilities and resources among Sacramento and the counties. There was hope, and there remains reason for hope still, that counties can more wisely manage lower-level offenders, better tailor programs to meet the public safety needs of communities and be more effective and efficient in fighting recidivism than can the distant state prison system. But an essential ingredient of reform is wiser sentencing laws. Without that, realignment has less chance at succeeding.
Many of the same critics who argued — falsely — that realignment would result in the release of serious and violent felons from prison, or that the reform of the state's "three strikes" law in 2012 would result in such a release, argue now that it's Proposition 47 that will finally cause such a release. The argument is an overreach. People in prison or jail for petty crimes, but who may have more serious felonies on their records, may indeed request resentencing under the measure, be heard by a judge and be sentenced to terms shorter than those they are currently serving. Some could be released earlier than they might otherwise. But unlike three-strikers who petitioned for and won reduction of life terms, these are felons serving short terms who are soon to come out anyway, just as people imprisoned for low-level felonies always do and always have done. They will be subject to parole supervision. The new thing here is not that former inmates will be going back to their neighborhoods; it is that resources will finally be available to curb the likelihood of their committing new crimes.
One likely benefit of Proposition 47 is not advertised but could make a real difference: With fewer crimes charged as felonies, there would be far fewer preliminary hearings (they are not needed for misdemeanor charges), which means fewer police officers pulled off the streets to wait around in courthouses to testify, less preparation time needed by deputy district attorneys and deputy public defenders, and less of a drain on local law enforcement and criminal justice budgets. It is one of many ways in which Proposition 47 would be a step forward for California.