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Prop. 47's sentencing reform should go to Legislature, not the ballot

Proposition 47, which would reduce penalties for drug and theft crimes, is yet another initiative that should never have been on the state ballot.

The Legislature and governor get paid to deal with such things. And when they do, we're usually better served.

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Our elected representatives can hold public hearings, engage in thoughtful debate, iron out kinks and compromise. Proposed laws can be filtered through a system of checks and balances.

That is, when the politicians can muster the courage to tackle tough issues — and in the case of Prop. 47, risk an opponent's attack for being "soft on crime."

But the flip side, as with many initiatives, is that it can be argued the Legislature did deal with the concept — and rejected it. Two years ago, similar legislation concerning drug crimes was introduced in the Senate and it failed miserably. Prop. 47 goes even further and bypasses the Legislature.

That's what California's century-old initiative system is designed for, but it's prone to produce flawed laws.

Last year, in a precursor to Prop. 47, the Legislature did pass a bill that retreated a bit from the decades-long war on drugs. The measure would have provided prosecutors the flexibility to treat all low-level drug possession offenses as either a misdemeanor or a felony — what's known as a "wobbler."

But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, pointing out that another measure he had signed required his administration to examine all sentencing and report back to the Legislature by January 2015. "That will be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws," the governor wrote.

Backers of Prop. 47 didn't want to wait. They include San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon and former San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne. Bankrollers include B. Wayne Hughes, a businessman and Christian ministries activist from Malibu; Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings and Democratic idealist George Soros.

"The Legislature is incapable of passing substantive reform," Gascon says. "There's tremendous timidity."

Prop. 47 would make possession for personal use of most illegal drugs — like cocaine and heroin — always a misdemeanor, subject to little or no county jail time. Now such crimes can be treated as felonies, although relatively few druggies ever wind up in prison.

At last count, less than 9% of prison inmates were serving time for some drug offense. Hardly anyone was in on a marijuana bust.

Secondly, Prop. 47 reduces to a misdemeanor other crimes deemed nonserious and nonviolent such as petty theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks and forgery. Basically, if the stolen property, bounced check or forgery is worth less than $950, it would always be a misdemeanor.

Burglarizing a home still would be a felony. But shoplift less than $950 worth of goods, and it's a misdemeanor.

Third, current felons serving time for these crimes could apply for reduced sentences.

Fourth, the net savings from less incarceration and police work — roughly estimated by the Legislative Analyst's Office at "several hundred million dollars annually" — would be earmarked for improved mental health and drug treatment programs, plus school truancy prevention.

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Proponents say these nonviolent criminals usually steal to finance their drug addictions, and that's why the offenses are linked in Prop. 47. The object is to keep young people out of prison, where they're often hardened into more dangerous criminals, and push them into life-altering treatment.

"They get into a prison system that is traumatic and causes two out of three to commit another offense once they're released," says Hughes, who was inspired by the late Chuck Colson, the Nixon aide who went to prison in the Watergate scandal and founded the Prison Fellowship movement.

"When you go to prison you have to join up with somebody," Hughes continues. "If you don't, you're at risk. You take orders. And the dangerous criminals are the guys giving the orders."

Once a felon, it's tough to get a job, and college loans are out of the question, Prop. 47 sponsors note.

Opponents, however, say the Legislature hasn't passed such sentencing reduction for good reason. "It would be catastrophic," contends Chris Boyd, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn., who heads the Citrus Heights Police Department in Sacramento County.

Another opponent, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, says "virtually no one is in prison or jail anymore for a low-level first offense. There already are laws in place to take care of that."

Opponents are especially hitting on two points: It would be a mere misdemeanor to steal a firearm worth less than $950, as most handguns are. And it also would be a misdemeanor to possess a date-rape drug.

Backers respond that it still would be a felony to knowingly possess a stolen gun or to use a drug for a sexual attack. Opponents counter that would require some legal gymnastics by prosecutors.

Any way you look at Prop. 47, it's too liberal for the Democrat-dominated Legislature. That gives me some pause.

Reducing drug sentences, OK. But property crimes? The thief who steals a $200 bracelet from a mom-and-pop jewelry in Boyle Heights gets a slap on the wrist. But walk off with a $2,000 necklace from a Beverly Hills shop and it's a felony. Doesn't click.

All that drug and mental health treatment is a great idea. So do it without Prop. 47.

This is a close call. But I think I'll wait for Brown to finish his sentencing study and hope for some legislative backbone.

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