Setting the Washington Post Straight on Proposition 47, California’s Sentencing Reform Legislation

ICE.XCheckII.arrestLast November, Californians overwhelmingly passed Proposition 47, which reclassifies non-serious, nonviolent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The law was intended to lessen overcrowding in prisons and to use the state’s justice-allocated resources more wisely. NCLR joined forces with Californians for Safety and Justice and were active advocates of the proposition’s passage. NCLR supported Proposition 47 because:

  • The law can reduce the impact of historical discriminatory treatment of Latinos by the criminal justice system. Latinos are more likely to be arrested, detained, and sentenced to longer periods of time than their non-Hispanic counterparts, often for the same classification of charges.
  • California will invest cost savings from implementing Proposition 47 in local mental health services, drug treatment programs, and school initiatives designed to serve at-risk youth, as well as services for victims of crime.
  • Public safety is an important issue for Latinos and Proposition 47 maintains the same levels of punishment for serious and violent criminal offenses.
  • Criminal records, even for very minor offenses, have significant consequences, and pose significant barriers for ex-offenders searching for employment, or housing, and accessing social services and other government benefits, even when they have paid their debt to society. For immigrants, the consequences can be severe; a felony conviction can lead to deportation or other immigration consequences.

Recently, the Washington Post published an article attempting to assess whether Proposition 47 was functioning as intended. The author chronicled the experiences of a homeless man living on the streets of San Diego who is caught with small amounts of drugs, arrested, fined, and released numerous times. The article points out that prior to the passage of Proposition 47, one such infraction would have been considered a felony and the offender could have been forced into a drug treatment program as an alternative to a prison sentence.

Here are some critical omissions from the article:

  1. Proposition 47 has been in effect for approximately 11 months. The State of California has yet to calculate realized cost savings, and in accordance with the new law’s provisions, investments in mental health, drug treatment, and prevention programs will not be implemented until 2016.
  2. Alternative programs to sentencing have historically not been made equally available to Latinos, who compose almost half of the state’s population, and are more likely to receive a prison sentence than a similarly situated White offender. Proposition 47 lessens the impact of discriminatory treatment of minority communities by the justice system.
  3. Surely there is at least one person living in San Diego who could have provided the author with a success story, perhaps one about how his or her life turned around for the better because Proposition 47 gave them second chance.
  4. The article considers exclusively the views of law enforcement officials to the exclusion of mental health professionals, and community service providers who work on behalf of ex-offender populations and undoubtedly would have provided different point of view.
  5. Despite not being able to demonstrate a causal connection to increases in crime—because as the author explicitly notes “it’s too early to know how much crime can be attributed to Proposition 47”—the article nevertheless lists a number of California cities where crime has allegedly increased post-enactment of the new law. The fact is that crime, particularly violent crime, is on an uptick in many cities across the country. Like Proposition 47, proposed bipartisan federal sentencing reform legislation maintains punishment for violent crime.

There are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than in any other country in the world. As our nation reconsiders policies that have resulted in mass incarceration, the people of California led the way and enacted common-sense sentencing reform, reasoning that it was important to address the root causes of crime and not just the symptoms. Assessing California’s implementation of Proposition 47 based exclusively on the views of law enforcement and the experiences of one drug offender does yield accurate information. The people of California deserve better.

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