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Election 2014 FAQ: Prop 47 — criminal sentencing

A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC
A prisoner in Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles speaks with his cellmates in this photo from December 2011.

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Proposition 47 is an initiative statute placed on the ballot by voter petition. It is also referred to as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.

Who's behind this ballot measure?

Retired San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón are the proponents of this measure. 

Lansdowne argues the state's criminal justice system badly needs reform, pointing to rapid growth in the state's prison population fueled by a spate of tough anti-crime bills, high recidivism in California and statistics showing many prisoners suffer from mental illness or substance abuse disorders. 

What would it do?

If approved, Prop 47 would:

  • Reduce to misdemeanor certain crimes that are currently felonies or that can be charged as either felony or misdemeanor, as long as the offender has not been convicted of more serious crimes such as murder and certain sex and gun crimes. The crimes being reduced include grand theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, check forgery and drug possession.
  • Reduce the length of sentences for the above crimes and introduce lesser sentences at the county level for the portion of offenders who would be sent to state prison under existing law.
  • Allow those convicted of felonies for the above crimes to apply for a reduction to a misdemeanor, unless they have committed certain severe crimes.
  • Require savings realized from the measure to be deposited into a new state fund, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, to be divided as follows:
    • 25 percent on grants to help reduce truancy and dropouts among K-12 students
    • 10 percent on grants for victim services
    • 65 percent to support mental health and drug abuse treatment services designed to reduce recidivism

How is this different from existing laws?

According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, currently:

  • Some crimes, such as check forgery or being found in possession of stolen property, can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor — these crimes are known as "wobblers."
  • Theft of property, shoplifting and receiving stolen property worth $950 or less, as well as check forgery of any amount and writing a bad check worth more than $450 are all considered wobblers.
  • Drug possession can be a misdemeanor, a wobbler or a felony depending on the amount and type of drug.
  • Roughly 40,000 offenders a year are convicted of these crimes and would therefore be affected by Prop 47.

How much will it cost taxpayers?

According to the LAO, over several years, Prop 47 could eventually result in net savings for the state in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually, mostly from a reduction in the prison population. Those state savings would go toward the new Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.

The measure could result in similar savings at the county level as fewer offenders are sent to jail, the LAO reports.

More: Read the full LAO analysis

How much money's being spent on the campaigns?

Who's supporting it and why?

Financial support for Prop 47 far outweighs spending from opponents. The top financial backer is the Open Society Policy Center, which, as KPCC's Sharon McNary points out, is a project of billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros.

Other major contributors to Prop 47 include the company Public Storage and Our Children Our Future, a committee formed by wealthy Pasadena lawyer Molly Munger for her campaign to increase education funding through Prop 38 in 2012. Prop 38 was defeated and a measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Prop 30, which was seen by some as a competing measure, got the approval of voters instead.

Supporters argue that Prop 47 will help ease California's overcrowded prison population, save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and help fund schools and crime prevention measures.

In addition to Gascón and Lansdowne, victims' advocate Dionne Wilson of Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice also appears on the ballot making arguments in favor of Prop 47.

More: Yes on 47 campaign

Who's opposing it and why?

The top contributor to the No on 47 campaign is the California State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police Issues Committee. Several professional law enforcement organizations have contributed a few thousand dollars each.

Opponents point out that Prop 47 will lead to the release of thousands of felons. They also argue that the measure is poorly drafted and that redefining crimes such as felony grand theft would reduce stealing many lower-priced handguns and drugs used in date-rape to misdemeanors.

Making arguments against Prop 47 on the ballot are Christopher W. Boyd, president of the California Police Chiefs Association; Harriet Salarno of Crime Victims' United; and Gilbert G. Otero, president of the California District Attorneys Association.

Note: The No on 47 campaign does not appear to have a website

…a YES vote means…

You support the changes: certain crimes will be reduced from felonies or wobblers to misdemeanors, sentencing for those crimes will be reduced and all savings from the measure will go toward a new state fund to support victims, reduce student truancy and pay for mental health services designed to reduce recidivism.

…a NO vote means…

You reject the changes: the types of crimes listed above will still be treated as felonies or wobblers, sentencing will not be reduced and a new state fund will not be created.

What else is being reported on this measure?

And there's this explainer put together by SeePolitical, a nonprofit organization that aims to help voters by decoding complicated political issues with accessible video content:

Para ver en español, haz clic aquí.

Poll: How would you vote?

Poll: Do you support Prop 47?

KPCC's online polls are not scientific surveys of local or national opinion. Rather, they are designed as a way for our audience members to engage with each other and share their views. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page,, or in the comments below.