Prop. 47’s effect on jail time, drug rehabilitation is mixed so far

Officer Jose Ibarra questions a homeless man on probation in Silver Lake.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Jose Ibarra snapped on latex gloves, pushed aside an upturned sofa and rummaged through the belongings piled below an underpass in Silver Lake.

Under a thin, grimy mattress and the torn pages of a pornography magazine, the Los Angeles police officer discovered two needles and a glass pipe with a small amount of methamphetamine inside. The makeshift shelter’s owner stood a few feet away, handcuffed as Ibarra’s partner kept watch.

Until recently, the homeless man would have been hauled off to jail to face a felony charge. Then came Proposition 47, the landmark ballot measure that downgraded drug possession and minor thefts to misdemeanors.


On this recent evening, Ibarra admonished the handcuffed man to stay out of trouble. With that, his partner unlocked the cuffs and the two officers headed back to their patrol car as the man retreated into his cramped home.

“I hate to look at it as a waste of time but, yeah, [arresting him] probably would be,” said LAPD Sgt. Chris Gomez, who was present when the officers chose not to arrest the homeless man. “Nothing much would have come of it.”

In the months since Proposition 47 became law on Nov. 5, California’s criminal justice system is already undergoing dramatic changes — and not always in expected ways. The idea was to reduce incarceration times for nonviolent offenders and focus on rehabilitation while easing jail overcrowding.

On the streets, some people who are committing Proposition 47 crimes are not being arrested, avoiding jail but also the drug treatment that could turn their lives around. Narcotics arrests have dropped by 30% in the city of Los Angeles and 48% in areas patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, as busy police officers decide that the time needed to process a case is not worth it.

Even when arrested, drug offenders are often issued a citation to appear in court and face little to no jail time if convicted. Law enforcement officials say they have lost an important tool to deal with those offenders, who remain free to get high again or steal to support their habits. Some drug addicts and their relatives agree, saying the new law allows troubled individuals to hurt themselves and steal with little consequence.

Property crimes, which include burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, have risen in much of Los Angeles County since Proposition 47 passed, according to a Times analysis of crime data. Through the end of January, property crimes were up 10% in sheriff’s territory and up 7% in the city of Los Angeles, compared with the same period a year ago.

Some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions, warning that it is too soon to gauge the new law’s effect and that other factors could be responsible for the increase.

But to Asst. Sheriff Michael Rothans, who oversees patrol operations for the Sheriff’s Department, the connection is obvious: More petty criminals on the streets mean more crimes.

“Why is property crime up? It’s because of this,” said Rothans, who has urged deputies to continue making drug arrests. “The same people are arrested for narcotics and property crimes. We know the cycle is continuing because we know they should have been in jail.”

The new law specifies that the financial savings on the incarceration side be reinvested in truancy, drug treatment and mental health programs. But that provision does not take effect until mid-2016. Without the threat of jail time, fewer defendants are opting for the drug treatment programs that judges sometimes offer as an alternative.

Proposition 47 is at the forefront of a national trend to reduce harsh criminal penalties that led to an explosion in prison and jail populations beginning in the 1980s. It follows a revision to California’s three strikes law that limits the maximum penalty to those whose last offense is serious or violent.

Along with the shift of nonviolent inmates from state prison to county jails approved by the state Legislature in 2011, Proposition 47 is expected to further transform California’s criminal justice landscape.

Already, the new law has had a profound effect on the Los Angeles County jails. With fewer people awaiting trial or serving time for offenses that had previously been felonies, overcrowding has subsided. As a result, jailers are keeping county-sentenced inmates for nearly all their time instead of releasing them early.

Thomas Hoffman, a former police official who was a senior advisor for the Proposition 47 campaign, said law enforcement tends to view locking up criminals as the answer, when many have reoffended after spending time in jail.

Theorizing about crime increases and the proposition is premature, he said.

“The arrest and rearrest of these minor offenses only postpones crime. It doesn’t eliminate it. It’s a momentary speed bump in these people’s lives,” said Hoffman, a former director of the state prison system’s parole division as well as a former top official in the Inglewood and West Sacramento police departments.

Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which coordinated the Proposition 47 campaign, said it will take time for the state’s criminal justice system to adjust to the changes and figure out “how to hold people accountable and stop crime.”

The key to the new law’s success will be whether the cost savings are indeed spent on drug treatment, said Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine.

“If it is not going to do that, then we are not going to see any change for the better, and we’ll see people out there floundering more than they already are,” Currie said.

Of the nearly 4,500 people arrested by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies on Proposition 47 crimes since early November, more than 460 have been arrested again — some multiple times.

One of those repeat arrestees is Semisi Sina, who has been booked six times since Jan. 1, mostly on suspicion of meth-related crimes and once for allegedly shoplifting bicycle equipment from a Wal-Mart. Prior to the new law, he already had a lengthy rap sheet — 13 arrests and five convictions in California.

On a recent afternoon, there was no sign of Sina, 30, at the Hacienda Heights home where he lives with his parents. His father, Joe Sina, said he would rather see his son behind bars than at home, because nothing else is working.

“I want the judge to do something better. Treatment or jail, I don’t care,” said the elder Sina, a retired construction worker. “I want them to clean him up, and after one year he can come back and start a new life.”

Some law enforcement officials say similar offenders are driving the recent increase in property crimes. Motor vehicle thefts were up more than 20% in both LAPD and Sheriff’s territory through the end of January compared with the same period the year before. The number of car break-ins was up in both, rising 12% for the Sheriff’s Department and 5% for the LAPD.

In the Carson area, sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Conway said he continues to arrest “tweakers” — meth addicts — and others on Proposition 47 misdemeanors, despite the hours it can take to book them.

Some offenders have told him to go ahead and issue the ticket, because the consequences are so paltry. It is harder to get a drug user to inform on his dealer without the threat of a felony prosecution, Conway said.

“People know, ‘Hey, I’m not going to get in trouble for this, so why risk my neck?’” Conway said.

Detectives are now stationed in Carson-area big-box stores such as Target and Sears to crack down on an increase in shoplifting, said sheriff’s Sgt. Joe Ramos. Department-wide, thefts have increased more than 12% from a year ago.

At Project 180 on the edge of skid row in downtown Los Angeles, the court-ordered drug treatment program has only 27 of its 62 slots filled as the stream of referrals from felony prosecutions has slowed.

The center’s director, Emily Bell, supports Proposition 47 because she believes the old penalties were out of proportion to the crimes. But for the measure to work, she said, treatment programs like hers will have to be creative about finding clients.

She hopes that misdemeanor defendants will begin filling the open treatment slots and that addicts from the streets will be attracted by services her center offers, such as free dental work.

For many of the addicts at Project 180, jail did not work. Neither did their previous attempts at treatment. It took hitting rock bottom, or simply an internal resolve that the cycle had to stop.

Adam Arnold was living in a tent next to the 110 Freeway, using meth, eating from trash cans and stealing from the 99-cent store. He was convicted three times for drug possession and went through a court-ordered drug program, only to return to his old ways, he said.

He finally became so miserable that he began calling rehab programs, but all were full. It took getting arrested again to end up at Project 180, where he is enrolled in a year-long program and preparing to start culinary school.

Proposition 47 is “ridiculous,” he said, because it enables people to get high and commit crimes.

“It should be a big felony,” said Arnold, 27. “If I would have gotten a big felony, it would have helped change me earlier.”

Joseph Coddington also expressed skepticism about Proposition 47. Without more severe penalties, he said, he would be “getting high with a bunch of tickets in my tote bag.”

For years, he went in and out of prison. Numerous rehab programs did nothing to change him. Recently, following a shoplifting charge, he chose treatment at Project 180. At 58, he said he is finally ready to leave cocaine behind forever.

“I have this bed, and I’m not going to give it up,” Coddington said.