California Voters Pass Proposition 47 Sentencing Reform

From Marc Mauer

The Sentencing Project

We applaud the voters of California for passing Proposition 47, a ballot measure that reclassifies six low-level property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. These offenses include shoplifting, theft, and check fraud under $950, as well as personal use of most illegal drugs. State savings resulting from the measure are estimated to be at least $150 million a year and will be used to support school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, mental health and drug abuse treatment, and other programs designed to expand alternatives to incarceration.

This historic vote demonstrates support to advance a public safety strategy beyond incarceration to include treatment and prevention. The measure allows individuals currently serving prison terms for eligible offenses to apply to have their felony sentences reduced to misdemeanors and persons who have completed their felony sentence to apply to the court to have their conviction changed to a misdemeanor. Approximately, 10,000 incarcerated persons will be eligible for resentencing under the new law.

Since California reached its peak prison population in 2006, prisoner counts have fallen every year. This dramatic change was primarily driven by the state’s efforts to comply with a court order to reduce prison overcrowding. In a significant 2011 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata found the provision of health care in the California prison system to be constitutionally inadequate due to the severe overcrowding in the system; the state was required to reduce this figure to 137.5% of design capacity within two years.

Through “Realignment,” the state has made substantial reductions in its prison population but has yet to reach the court-stipulated level. Changes in policy and practice have resulted in higher jail populations, but also substantial numbers of people now under community supervision rather than state prison.

The changes in policy in California have generally targeted sentencing reforms to persons with low-level offenses, but these initiatives represent only one aspect of a broader strategy towards prison population reduction. There are over 40,000 individuals serving life prison terms in California. While most of these individuals have been convicted of serious offenses research has shown that such prisoners who are released have low rates of recidivism. Long-term sentencing reform will also need to focus on enacting policies and practices to provide opportunities to distinguish among individual offense circumstances, accomplishments in prison, and degree of risk to public safety.

California’s historic vote should be particularly instructive for all concerned with excessively high prison populations. Coming after a nearly four-decade rise in imprisonment, the substantial reductions in Californian due to changes like Proposition 47 demonstrate the possibility of achieving pragmatic reforms to address mass incarceration.