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Election 2014: Prop 47 reduces drug and property crimes to misdemeanors

On November 4th, California voters will decide whether to send fewer people to state prison by reducing many property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The millions in savings would be sent to community-based rehabilitation programs.

The measure is called Proposition 47. It comes 20 years after voters passed the tough-on-crime, Three Strikes law for repeat felons and at time when Californians are living through historic low crime rates.

Also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Prop. 47 would downgrade six felony crimes: shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, forgery, and drug possession, as long as the stolen items or the bad checks written are worth less than $950.

Offenders who have been convicted of murder, rape or certain gun and sex crimes are not eligible to have their felonies reduced.

About 40,000 offenders each year who are convicted of these types of crimes would be affected if the measure passes, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst Office.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who organized a successful ballot initiative two years ago that softened the Three Strikes punishment law, introduced this year’s Proposition 47.

He said the fact that nearly 70 percent of California voters said yes to amending the once-toughest law on the book, Three Strikes, encouraged him.

“[It] gave me indication that the public is becoming much more sophisticated about how they look at public safety,” Gascon said.

Last month, the Public Policy Institute of California polled about 1,700 likely voters across the state. About 60 percent of them said they would vote for the measure; 13 percent didn’t know how they'd vote.

Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the PPIC, said crime was at the bottom of the list of the issues people were concerned about this election.

“There seems to be a willingness, on the part of the voters, to consider alternatives to the status quo, and that’s because we’ve got low crime rates and you have high cost,” he said.

The California Legislative Analyst's office estimates Proposition 47 could save the state criminal justice system more than a hundred million dollars annually.  Thousands of inmates could potentially be re-sentenced and released under the measure, fewer inmates would be sent to state prison, and prosecutors would spend less time pursuing felonies in state courts.

The state finance director would divide up the savings among state departments to fund community-based substance abuse and mental health services, school truancy and dropout prevention programs, and victim support groups.

For Charsleen Poe, 55, the ballot initiative could open doors that have been shut for 16 years since her first felony conviction for drug possession.

“I think I had like a dime, piece of crack cocaine,” she said.

But that wasn’t the last time Poe found herself in the state penitentiary. Her drug and alcohol addiction led to three more prison terms for personal drug use. She attended rehab classes inside prison but it never stuck, she said, partly because Poe spent too little time in the programs before being released. And she said, rehab in prison is nothing like rehab classes in your neighborhood.

“You still have to pass by the drug addicts that are still using and then you pass by the dope dealer. And then you can go into the store and buy something and don’t have to buy alcohol,” she said. “You have that decision. And you make up your mind from being out there with that.”

If the initiative passes, Poe could petition the court to reduce her felony drug convictions to misdemeanors. The initiative is retroactive, meaning prisoners currently serving time for those six felonies could do the same. It would be up to a judge to decide.

Poe graduated in 2008 from a reentry and sober living home in South Los Angeles called A New Way of Life. She now volunteers there, fielding phone calls from clients looking for legal help to expunge their criminal records. She hopes to do that too so she can check the “no” box on housing and employment applications that ask if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony.

“It will give me an opportunity to say I’m rehabilitated and I’m ready to come into society as a woman that is willing to work,” Poe said.

The six felony property and drug crimes that would be downgraded to misdemeanors are also called “wobblers” in court. Prosecutors can decide whether to charge these types of crime as a misdemeanor or a felony, based on the person’s criminal record and the severity of the offense.

This is one reason why the California District Attorneys Association is against Proposition 47, said Stephen Wagstaffe, second vice-president of the association and District Attorney for San Mateo County.

“This takes away from the discretion of district attorneys and judges as to whether cases ought to be felony or misdemeanor,” he said.

Wagstaffe thinks the ballot measure would ruin realignment. Three years ago this month, the California Legislature decided to shift some state custody responsibilities to local counties. That means people convicted of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual crimes are now held in county jails instead of state prison.

The state’s police chiefs and sheriff’s associations have come out against the ballot measure. Because Proposition 47 would change some property and drug felonies to misdemeanors, those convicts would also serve time in county jails, most of which are like San Bernardino County’s – at capacity. 

“Our jails are full and those folks that are coming in that are sentenced for misdemeanor crimes aren’t doing any jail time at all,” said Sheriff John McMahon of San Bernardino County.  

Misdemeanors are considered low-level crimes punishable with six months to one year in jail (and sometimes, no jail time). McMahon said this group of criminals would miss out on rehab, counseling and other programs the county jail system’s offers. Plus, he doubts local prosecutors would order people convicted of misdemeanors to be on probation.

“If there’s no probation tail,” he said. “There’s no way to force them to participate in programming, to help them so that they don’t reoffend.”

Opponents of Proposition 47 also say the measure could promote gun violence since stealing a gun worth less than $950 would be considered a misdemeanor. Proponents dispute that saying there are several ways to prosecute gun theft as a felony.

It was 20 years ago when California voters overwhelming said yes to Three Strikes after the murders of Kimber Reynolds and Polly Klass terrified families. Gang wars and high crime rates also fueled the vote. But two years ago, more than two-thirds of California voters agreed to ease the sting of Three Strikes. And a poll last month shows similar strong support for Proposition 47.

There’s been little media campaigning either for or against the initiative.  That could change in the next few weeks, as November 4 approaches -- and so may California’s great social experiment with mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.