Proposition 47, a sweeping ballot measure that reduced penalties for certain crimes, has already led to the release of hundreds of jail and prison inmates statewide and inundated courts with scores of applications from people who want their records cleansed of felonies.
"Prop. 47 was a smoke bomb dropped in every courtroom in California," said Yolo County Superior Court Judge Dave Rosenberg, "and we are working on clearing out the smoke."
The retroactive measure reduced several nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors — thereby slashing sentences for those behind bars — and made it possible for people who were convicted decades ago to have their felony records disappear.
Judges expect that tens of thousands of Californians may seek to have their felony convictions reduced. Courts have had to scramble to handle the surge in workload, and some agencies are planning to ask for more public funding to cover the added duties.
In a Contra Costa County courtroom, an inmate in a green jail uniform peeked out from behind bars as a public defender argued that her felony conviction for possessing cocaine should be reduced to a misdemeanor.
The woman, observing from an enclosed pen known as "the box," was among the first few hundred in the state to benefit from the measure voters passed Nov. 4
"Good luck ma'am," Superior Court Judge Terri Mockler told the inmate after reducing her conviction to a misdemeanor and her sentence to time served. "You are being released today."
The judge moved on to the next case, poring over records in a Martinez courtroom set aside each Friday to hear petitions from people affected by Proposition 47, the most defendant-friendly state law in decades. The law's promise — to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails — is already being fulfilled in some places.
"For the first time in anyone's memory, there are now empty beds in the Yolo jail," Rosenberg said.
He said 47 inmates had been released in that small county alone.
Public defenders are researching records and working overtime to identify felons who will benefit from the law, particularly those who are immediately eligible for release.
"There has been a feeding frenzy to get out as many criminals as they can," said Deputy Contra Costa Dist. Atty. Jason Peck, scurrying down a court hallway during a break in the hearings. "We are doing damage control."
Courts, already staggering under steep state budget cuts, are reassigning judges and courtrooms to hear Proposition 47 cases.
San Diego County Presiding Judge David J. Danielsen, recalling the "kachink, kachink, kachink" of the clerk's stamps as petitions poured in after the election, said "it sounded like a factory."
Danielsen said San Diego County has estimated that 18,000 people convicted of felonies during the last three years are eligible for resentencing. Since 1990, the county has had 423,000 felony convictions that could become misdemeanors under the new law.
"We don't know if a quarter or 30% would be eligible," the judge said, "but that number scares us."
Nearly 5,000 people in state prison and tens of thousands more in county jails and on probation are probably eligible for resentencing. Those who completed their sentences years ago also can have their felonies erased.
The incentive to take advantage of the new law is strong: a felony conviction can make it impossible to get a job, obtain government student loans, receive public housing or get a license for a wide range of positions, from hairstyling to nursing.
Although people have long had opportunities to have prior records expunged, their felonies still remain on records accessible to law enforcement and state licensing agencies.
"The benefit of getting a felony removed from your record is huge," Los Angeles County Assistant Public Defender Carol Clem said.
She said a computer check found that as many as 20,000 people convicted each year of felonies "as far as we can go back" in Los Angeles County might be eligible. Proposition 47 gives people three years to apply.
Chief Deputy Probation Officer Reaver Bingham said about 15,000 people who are now on probation in Los Angeles County could potentially benefit from Proposition 47 and "could create a potential public safety issue." Without further analysis of their criminal records, it was impossible to say exactly how many probationers could be released from regular monitoring, though it was certain to be thousands, he said.
"Most of those individuals will not be supervised," Bingham said.
The measure classified such offenses as drug possession, petty theft, possession of stolen goods, shoplifting, forgery and writing bad checks as misdemeanors instead of potential felonies, punishable by no more than a year in jail rather than three years behind bars.
Records to determine eligibility must be located and reviewed, a task that will largely fall on court clerks. A felony theft conviction can be reduced to a misdemeanor only if the stolen item was valued at less than $950, requiring old police reports in some cases. Years of budget cuts have devastated the ranks of court clerks, and gathering the records has already proved to be challenging.
Mockler, the Contra Costa County judge, described the first day of hearing Proposition 47 cases as "horrendous" and struggled to obtain the information she needed to rule.
"Once again, we don't have all the files," she said after being asked to release another inmate.
Trial judges are being forced to interpret the law, and their decisions can be appealed to higher courts.
Assistant Contra Costa Public Defender Jonathan Laba said courts will have to decide whether felonies negotiated in plea bargains can be reduced to misdemeanors, whether someone whose felony is reduced to a misdemeanor may have his DNA profile removed from the state's offender database, and whether the new law applies to juveniles.
The law permits judges to refuse to reduce a conviction if they believe that the inmate poses a danger to the community, but it does not lay out the framework for a hearing or the amount of evidence required.
"I imagine 58 different trial courts will have different opinions," Rosenberg said. Eventually, the questions will be decided by appeals courts and the California Supreme Court.
Judge Marsha Slough, the presiding judge in San Bernardino County Superior Court, said Proposition 47 has already resulted in people dropping out of drug treatment. On one day at the Victorville courthouse, 24 people appeared for drug court, where defendants agree to treatment in exchange for reduced penalties. Fourteen of the 24 had their cases reduced to misdemeanors and dropped out of treatment, Slough said.
Judges and lawyers expect the next six months to be the busiest with Proposition 47 cases. The ballot measure did not provide for additional funds but has been projected to save money in the long run as a result of reduced incarceration rates. The savings are supposed to pay for drug treatment and mental health.
"I could probably use 10 more staff," Danielsen said. The San Diego County Superior Court is at its lowest level of staffing in more than 10 years, the judge said. Studies show that it needs 1,700 employees, but has fewer than 1,200, he said.
Yolo County's Rosenberg compared the Proposition 47 fallout to "a snake swallowing a pig."
"The pig is working its way through the court's digestive system," the judge said.