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Prop 47: Courts scramble to keep up with downgrade of drug crimes

Empty courtroom where layoffs in the Los Angeles Superior Court system were announced March 16, 2010.
Brian Watt/KPCC
A courtroom in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys are scrambling to implement the new sentencing laws that came with the passage of Proposition 47 last week, which downgraded penalties for non-violent property and drug crimes to misdemeanors.

In a courtroom Friday at the Criminal Justice building in downtown Los Angeles, court clerks rifled through stacks of cases.

James Cherry, 56, was waiting in the gallery for his case to be heard. He was arrested two weeks ago for possession of marijuana. But his attorney walked in and gave him a fist bump. His felony charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor.

“That’s the way it should be,” Cherry said.

With 58 percent of the vote, Proposition 47 changed six felonies into misdemeanors overnight: drug possession, having stolen property, theft, writing bad check and forgery -- as long as it’s less than $950.

The state Legislative Analyst estimates 40,000 people are convicted each year of those types of crimes.

There are about 4,000 cases pending in Los Angeles courts alone that could be eligible for the downgrade, according to the L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey.  

“There’s a lot of work,” she said. “There’s so much paperwork.”

Lacey said her office would continue to file misdemeanors cases under Prop 47 until the end of January to give the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Inglewood time to hire additional staff and train them on the new law. 

The L.A. City Attorney’s office anticipates a 17 percent increase in workload because of Proposition 47, according to a report submitted to the city council last Wednesday. They are asking for eight new attorneys with support staff that will cost approximately $510,000 beginning this fiscal year.

Drug cases will be particularly challenging and laborious for local city attorneys, said Lacey, because they’ll need to establish a drug measuring and case filing standard. They’ll also need a chemist.

Proposition 47 is retroactive, meaning offenders who have already been convicted of a felony that is now considered a misdemeanor can petition to have their case resentenced.

Lacey said by next week, the state corrections department is expected to give each jurisdiction in California a list of inmates who are potentially eligible for release under Prop 47.

Then, Los Angeles prosecutors will screen each case for prior convictions that would disqualify an inmate for release or resentencing.

The phones are ringing at the L.A. County Public Defenders office. Eager clients want to see a judge to get their cases resentenced.

“They’re asking, can’t we just resentence them right away,” said assistant public defender Carol Clem. 

“It’s hard to explain to somebody who is excited about changing their future really that it’s a process,” she said.

Clem said they are focusing first on clients who are currently serving time in prison under what used to be a felony before Proposition 47 passed. People who have already served their sentence can petition to downgrade a past felony conviction to a misdemeanor, restoring voting and other rights.

Clearing a felony conviction from your record could open doors for employment chances, the ability to qualify for student loans and pubic housing assistance.

“Thousands and thousands of people are going to have better lives because of this,” Clem said.

Ex-offenders seeking to have their past felony convictions downgraded must file a petition to be heard by November 2017.