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Opinion

Editorial: California’s Prop. 47 revolution: How L.A.'s city attorney filled a leadership vacuum

Prop. 47 misdemeanor arrest

Semisi Sina, right, next to his attorney Rebeca De La Cerra, middle, in the West Covina Courthouse on March 9. He’s accused of stealing a bicycle from a backyard and possessing meth.

(Los Angeles Times)

Californians adopted Proposition 47 a year ago, changing possession of drugs and five property crimes from felonies into misdemeanors. Offenders are still subject to arrest, trial, conviction and jail for up to a year, so it’s not clear why police and other justice officials now act as if Proposition 47 crimes are non-criminal infractions that don’t deserve any response at all, except perhaps for ticket-like citations.

What is abundantly clear, though, is that after Proposition 47, many police officers and sheriff’s deputies have simply stopped making drug and theft arrests. Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck say they’ve instructed their troops to continue as before, yet arrest numbers have plummeted.

But many of those same officers who have stopped arresting for Proposition 47 offenses are also arguing that the drop in arrests has led to more crime. There is no data to support that, but let’s accept for the sake of argument that it is true. If they believe that their failure to arrest suspects is increasing crime, why don’t they make the arrests?

Some claim they can’t, now that the crimes are no longer felonies — but that’s simply false. Others say there’s no point because their watch commanders would probably never hold the suspects or send them to court, or prosecutors might not take the cases, and if they did, the judges would just release them. And judges argue that there’s no point sending them to jail because there’s no room there — which would be an interesting argument except for the fact that, with so many fewer arrests, fewer people are going to jail, overcrowding has eased and sheriffs have more flexibility with their jail space than they have had in decades.

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Key justice leaders appear paralyzed by the change — ironically, a change that offers new flexibility to fight crime and ensure that offenders return to society safely and productively, if only those leaders would revamp their practices, update their attitudes and do a better job at communicating with one another and working together.

Without leadership or coordination, they become a circular firing squad, with judges, prosecutors, probation officers, police, sheriffs and others in the criminal justice system each pointing to the other as the reason they can’t properly do their jobs.

Leadership, communication and coordination on a criminal justice shift of this magnitude ought to come from the state attorney general. But Kamala Harris, who declined to take a public position on the measure when it was on the ballot, has been silent on its implementation and on the charges and challenges that have arisen since passage.

But surely in Los Angeles County, which accounts for a third of the state’s people, perpetrators, victims and former inmates, an elected official would stand up to coordinate the response?

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Not McDonnell, who blames Proposition 47 for a host of ills, nor Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who, to her credit, is focused on the diversion of mentally ill inmates from jail into programs that are more appropriate for them. Nor the Board of Supervisors, nor the chief probation officer, nor Superior Court judges.

Instead, the dangerous vacuum of county leadership on Proposition 47 response was filled in Los Angeles by City Atty. Mike Feuer, who convened McDonnell, Lacey, Superior Court leaders and the others to finally ask one another questions and seriously seek some answers. What problems have arisen? What real data exist and what is just anecdote? What outdated local practices require some rethinking and retraining?

The group has met several times since mid-summer; it is due to meet again today.

These sessions represent an important step, belated though they may be. But they are conducted behind closed doors, and as such are insufficient. Proposition 47 was in essence a set of marching orders from the people to their elected officials to revamp the justice system, to make better use of scarce jail space, to get treatment to people who need it, to improve the ability of former inmates to reenter society and to keep people safe. The public should be able to monitor implementation, and to measure whether their leaders are responding productively to the new legal landscape, or merely trying to roll it back.

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