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Women suffer disproportionately under harsh California laws

She's probably told her story thousands of times, but when we talk, Susan Burton's tale comes spilling out of her as if it's the first time she's shared it: in and out of prison for years for possessing small amounts of crack cocaine, never offered drug diversion or help with housing or work.

When Burton argues that Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that would reclassify many small-time felonies as misdemeanors, would have spared her years of a “turnstile” life, she is persuasive.

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"I was sent up over and over again during a 15-year span," said Burton, who fell into serious addiction in 1982 after her 5-year-old son was killed by a car. "I'd have maybe like $20 worth. Literally, I would get off a bus downtown skid row and try to make my way with my $200 'gate money.' I had no ID, no Social Security card. I would re-offend, get caught and go back to prison."

It was not until she found CLARE Foundation, which has provided recovery support to addicts in Santa Monica for nearly 45 years, that it occurred to Burton that something was very wrong in her own neighborhood. "I found so many services at CLARE that helped me—counseling, medical services, dental services, just a wide variety of services that helped me put my life back together."

Long story short: She founded her own program in South Central, scraping together enough money for a down payment on a place. "I would go down to the bus station where I had gotten off that bus many, many times, and I would wait for the women that I knew were leaving prison, and I would invite them to the house."

Most of the women had done time for petty, poverty-related crimes: stealing a purse, writing bad checks, drug possession. "One woman I helped served three years for .05 grams of cocaine—like a little bit of dust, a crumb!"

At last count, Burton's organization, A New Way of Life, has served about 750 women. The other day, Burton was a featured speaker at the University of Illinois in Chicago, talking about alternatives to incarceration. It's an idea whose time, at long last, seems to have come.

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Prop. 47 would reduce penalties for many low-level crimes in California: drug possession, petty theft, shoplifting, forgery and writing bad checks. Money saved on what has come to be called California's "overincarceration" problem — as much as $300 million annually-- would be used to support schools, the state's victims compensation fund and, most critically, mental health, substance abuse and drug diversion efforts.

My colleague Paige St. John reported last week that more than 58,000 of the state's 202,000 felony convictions in 2012 involved crimes listed on the ballot measure. About 40,000 cases would be reduced to misdemeanors, she wrote, noting that Prop. 47 exempts offenses involving more than $950 and people whose criminal records include violence of sex offenses.

Because Proposition 47 is retroactive, more than 7,000 inmates, including some convicted under the state's "three strikes" law, could petition the courts for release.

Opponents suggest it's insane to reduce possession of date rape drugs and the theft of guns worth less than $950 from felonies to misdemeanors, and they do have a point.

But they don't talk about the dramatic effect that the measure will have on women, who, as it turns out, have a particularly high stake in the outcome.

A new analysis by the Women's Foundation of California found that California women are incarcerated for the crimes addressed by Prop. 47 at disproportionate rates compared to men.

For women, even more than men, the fallout of these convictions is devastating. Once they are convicted of drug felonies, for instance, women have a hard time accessing public benefits, housing, and even jobs, according to the report's author, Jolene Forman, a criminal justice and drug policy fellow at ACLU of Northern California.

Criminal convictions, said Forman, preclude a woman from doing the kind of unskilled work that women tend to do-- elder or child care. Men, on the other hand, tend to work in manual labor or construction jobs, where a conviction is far less likely to be a bar.

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Women who have petty drug convictions, she noted, also have trouble getting public housing vouchers. This puts a special burden on children, because, compared to men, a far higher percentage of women lived with their children before going to prison.

Children with incarcerated mothers, Forman notes in her analysis, are more likely to live in foster care, to drop out of school and to become, as the jargon goes, "justice involved."

"Once you are part of the juvenile or adult justice system," Forman told me, "it's really hard to stay out of the system because of collateral affects, and the trauma associated with incarceration."

This was true for Burton. Her frequent incarceration ruptured her relationship with her daughter, who was 15 when her son was killed. "She lost me, too," said Burton, 63. "I served six terms – 18 months, two years, three years. It's not rocket science that I was a woman who needed help, which was never given to me through the courts."

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Though Prop. 47 is supported mostly by left-leaning groups and individuals, it is by no means a partisan proposal. Last month, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., the conservative Christian billionaire and political activist, argued on the Times editorial page in favor of Prop. 47. (Hughes, a sometime Malibu resident, is founder of Public Storage. He is among the single largest donors to Karl Rove's American Crossroads Super PAC.)

"California has been overusing incarceration," they wrote. "Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at."

California, they note, spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, compared to $9,200 per K-12 student. "And as California built 22 prisons in 30 years, it built only one public university."

More to the point, we're not safer. Six of 10 offenders return to prison within three years of release.

If none of this is persuasive, would it help to know that both Texas and South Carolina—those solidly red states filled with law-and-order conservatives--have already figured out that reclassifying crimes and putting the money into treatment is the way to go?

Texas stopped expanding its prisons in 2007, Gingrich and Hughes wrote, using the money instead for probation and treatment. Its violent crime rate is the lowest it's been in nearly four decades. Likewise, South Carolina's reforms have led to the closure of one prison and a lower recidivism rate.

So ... progressive California? Not really. Punitive California is more like it.

Cast your vote for sanity: @robinabcarian

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