Op-Ed

California's Prop. 47 revolution: Voters were sold a bill of goods

As crime rates rise, Californians are realizing that they were sold a bill of goods on Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that converted some felonies to misdemeanors. The campaign spin was all about reducing the punishment for drug possession. But proponents played down its dramatic softening of penalties for many non-drug offenses.

Under this law, more than 3,700 inmates have had their sentences reduced and been released from state prison. Drug addicts now often escape punishment for crimes they commonly commit to support their habits: shoplifting, writing bad checks and any thefts under $950 — even of guns. And most semiautomatic pistols and revolvers are purchased new for less than $950. This leniency just facilitates continued addiction.

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Before Proposition 47, when prosecutors evaluated the appropriate degree of punishment to seek for someone accused of drug possession or theft, they studied the person's criminal history. That history doesn't matter much anymore. Even someone who has been convicted and served time for a serious crime — such as armed robbery, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon — can no longer be sent back to prison if convicted of a new theft or drug offense, because these have been reclassified as misdemeanors.

Let's say someone snatches a purse from your hand without knocking you over or using much force. That's called "grand theft person." Before Proposition 47, it was a "wobbler:" a crime that could be classified as either a felony or a misdemeanor. To decide which to charge, prosecutors would study the defendant's record. If, for example, he had a prior robbery, the prosecutor would probably go for a felony conviction. But now, unless your purse cost more than $950, the theft can be only a misdemeanor, meaning state prison is not possible as a punishment and deterrent.

Under Proposition 47, the criminal's prior robbery means nothing. His past simply doesn't matter.

Reformers say everyone needs a second chance, but the tragedy is that public safety has suffered as crime rates have soared. Residents have become victims under the guise of reforming punishment only for so-called victimless drug offenses.

In the city of Los Angeles, property crimes such as burglaries and motor vehicle thefts have risen 10.9% compared with the same period last year. Violent crime, such as aggravated assaults and robberies, has soared 20.6%. Mayor Eric Garcetti told The Times those increases may be linked to Proposition 47.

To make things even worse, the social engineers in the Legislature also passed a law in 2014 that reduced the maximum misdemeanor sentence from 365 days to 364 days. Under federal immigration law, a noncitizen who is convicted of an offense punishable by 365 days or more can be deported. With many felonies now reduced to 364-day misdemeanors, some criminals who otherwise would have been deported get to stay.

Here is additional fallout from Proposition 47 that Californians probably didn't anticipate when they voted for the measure:

The justice system lost all leverage to mandate rehabilitative drug programs. There is no incentive for an offender to accept a court-ordered 18-month to two-year intensive treatment program when the maximum consequence for a drug conviction is a six-month term in county jail. In many cases the jail sentence means only a few days, or even just hours, in custody because the jails have to make room for the felons sent from state prison under that other great reform called realignment. The treatment program rolls are down 60% in L.A. County, and addicted offenders are not getting the treatment they desperately need.

Proposition 47 took away a tool to fight sex crimes when it reduced the penalty for possession of dangerous date-rape drugs to a misdemeanor.

Thousands fewer DNA samples are being taken from suspects every month because state law permits police to collect DNA only from felony suspects. It follows that it will be much harder, if not impossible, to solve old cases such as murder and rape.

Californians passed Proposition 47 because it was slickly marketed as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. But as the results clearly demonstrate, we are far from being safer in our neighborhoods — or anywhere else.

Marc Debbaudt is president of the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent for deputy district attorneys for the county of Los Angeles.

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