In adopting Proposition 47 on Tuesday by a huge margin, Californians made a statement about the tough-on-crime policies of the last generation that increased prison costs and populations many times over while too often accelerating, rather than reversing, the descent of offenders and often whole communities into cycles of crime and victimization, incarceration and recidivism. Voters made a statement as well about the degree to which drug use and possession had resulted in unnecessarily long prison terms. They called for a new approach.
Deeper consensus about the statements inherent in the passage of Proposition 47 will probably prove elusive. That’s the problem with legislating by initiative — voters tend to make their choices based on the general policy or philosophical thrust of each ballot measure without delving into statutory details and without necessarily embracing or even grasping the wider political agendas of those who write the measures.
Given the choice, it would have been better for the changes wrought by Proposition 47 — reducing simple possession of drugs from felonies to misdemeanors, and doing the same with low-level property crimes — to have been adopted by the Legislature.
But lawmakers have failed to keep up with evolving public attitudes toward crime and punishment and have legislated instead as if voters were in the same fearful, punishing mood as when they passed three-strikes and other harsh initiatives. Tuesday’s vote, with any luck, will underscore the public hunger for change and move lawmakers who take office Dec. 1 and those already on the job to work toward a better, more balanced criminal justice system.
Lawmakers could begin by designing and establishing a sentencing commission. Such a step could at long last provide a buffer between the emotional urgency of high-profile crimes and the knee-jerk legislative response of ever-longer sentences. A commission that carefully weighs sentences against evidence of their effectiveness in reducing crime and recidivism could help stop the state from swinging back and forth, every 30 years or so, between punishment that is too tough and costly and punishment that is too lenient and dangerous.
Sacramento should also reject additional prison spending. Californians want and deserve to be protected from crime, but prisons that are too packed to offer the services that encourage inmates to recognize their mistakes or give them opportunities to change, and laws that make it harder rather than easier for former offenders to reenter society safely and productively, are not the answer. Lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown should focus on rehabilitation, reentry programs and alternatives to incarceration now — even before the additional funding from Proposition 47 for such programs kicks in a year from now.
Police and prosecutors, many of whom opposed the ballot measure, have it within their power to undermine it even after its overwhelming passage. Prosecutors could choose to reject the spirit of the measure and “charge up” — for example, to seek felony charges for possession for sale of a controlled substance in a case they might have charged last month as simple possession.
They could — but they should not. Their challenge is to implement the will of the voters in changing their stance toward drug users and petty criminals rather than looking for excuses not to.
In counties, the need for effective treatment and reentry programs will become even greater, and it’s worth noting that Los Angeles County, among others, has not moved as swiftly as it should have in finding and funding such programs since the need was stepped up by AB 109 realignment three years ago. With Proposition 47 in effect, and with more offenders who formerly would have been headed to prison or jail as felons now headed toward shorter jail stints followed by rehabilitation and education programs or just to the programs, counties will have to improve their game.
When realignment was adopted, a host of public officials charged with putting it into effect — police, prosecutors, county supervisors and others — spent too much time and energy resisting, passing along falsehoods about crime spikes and warning of disaster. Let’s hope they take a more constructive approach to implementing Proposition 47.
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