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The Backlash Against Prop. 47

Once-popular sentencing reform is being blamed for a rise in crime

Pablo Yale doesn’t seem like the tough-on-crime type. But the 40-year-old Cabrillo College grad and longtime Santa Cruz resident says he’s been forced to take a hard look at how Proposition 47 has made the city less safe—and he thinks everyone else should, too.

“My car has been broken into twice in the last year,” says Yale. “The first time was in front of my house, and they threw a beer bottle through the back window. The second time was in front of my girlfriend’s house. Someone smashed the window and grabbed my backpack with my laptop that had all my pictures and videos from my trip to Europe.”

It’s been almost two years since Prop. 47—aka the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative or the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act—was passed by a wide margin, winning 60 percent of the vote, and put into effect. The new law reduced the sentence for seven nonviolent, “non-serious” crimes, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies, including the possession of controlled substances for personal use. It was also retroactive, allowing already incarcerated individuals’ eligibility for release.

But what was once seen as a landmark reform in the criminal justice system—an opportunity to scale back what many saw as draconian sentencing laws for minor drug and other offenses—is facing a growing backlash. Critics say it has led to a rising crime rate, and while they tangle with supporters over the significance of the available numbers, the law is taking a beating in the court of public opinion.

Last October, the Washington Post published an article titled “A ‘Virtual Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card’” that seemed to galvanize opposition to the new law. In May, anti-Prop. 47 sentiment grew again when the California Police Chiefs Association issued a press release noting an increase in crime “a year after Proposition 47 resulted in statewide criminal justice reform.” There is now a Facebook page called Overturn Prop. 47 with 13,000 likes.

Locally, there also seems to be a growing perception that Prop. 47 has spurred an increase in crime.

“I’ve seen a decline in general civility in Santa Cruz,” Yale explains. “There are more break-ins. People can’t leave their stuff in their car overnight and there’s more drug use and needles found throughout town.”

 

Second Chances

As one of the people the law was written to help, Newt Jameson (not his real name) sees Prop. 47 differently. In February 2014, Jameson was arrested on Portola Drive, along with some friends.

“It’s my belief that most crime we see [locally] is fueled by drugs and alcohol. Incarceration is not always the best thing for someone going through drug addiction and needing treatment. We have to give them an opportunity to get better.” — Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart

“I was arrested for possession of a controlled substance,” Jameson says. “It was a small amount [of heroin], like 20 bucks’ worth. But it’s a Schedule 1 drug, so if you have anything on your person, you’re fucked.”

It happened, he explains, “during this period of time where I was getting arrested a lot for different stuff, all drug-related. I was estranged from my family and living or staying wherever I could.”

Because of his prior convictions, the then-21-year-old panicked and gave the police a fake name. After searching through his bag the officers found an item with his legal name.

“They probably knew I was loaded, but initially just charged me with falsifying information to a peace officer,” he remembers.

Once taken to the station and searched, officers found the narcotic stuffed into Jameson’s sock. Unable to afford a private lawyer, Jameson accepted a public defender and quickly checked himself into a Sober Living Environment.

“I stopped doing everything by April 2014,” he says. “I had been to jail before and it was no life for me. There was other stuff I wanted to do.”

However, the future didn’t seem too bright for a 21-year-old with a felony arrest record. When Jameson’s Public Defender told him about the passing of Prop. 47, things quickly began to turn around. Now 24 years old, Jameson has been clean for three years. He’s had the same job for over a year, and earned a promotion. An avid musician, Jameson plays in several bands throughout town, all of which he attributes to his new lease on life.

“It’s damning to have a system that says, ‘You have a felony charge, you’re done,’” he says. “A lot of people are wild when they’re younger, but they grow up. I understand why others would oppose 47, but I think it opens up the possibility for people to change.”

“It’s my belief that most crime we see [locally] is fueled by drugs and alcohol,” says Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart. “Incarceration is not always the best thing for someone going through drug addiction and needing treatment. We have to give them an opportunity to get better.”

 

Time is Money

When Prop. 47 passed, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) estimated 5,350 people within the system had felony charges for nonviolent offenses and could be resentenced under the law. According to the California Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the law would save the state at least $100 million annually.

Voters were told these savings would then be distributed into a Safe Neighborhood and Schools Fund (SNSF), created by Prop. 47. According to the plan, 65 percent of the revenue would go toward funding mental health and rehabilitation treatment for offenders, 25 percent would be allocated to public education for grades K-12, and 10 percent to funding for services to the victims of crimes.

However, the biggest problem with Prop. 47 may be that the money for the SNSF has not yet materialized. Not only that, but state bureaucrats are now saying it will be significantly less than originally predicted: Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office announced that instead of $100 million, the savings for 2015-2016 will be $29.3 million.

There is still hope, however: the California Legislative Analyst’s Office published a study concluding that the Governor’s Office report purposefully underestimated the savings and overestimated the cost of Prop. 47 for the latest financial findings. According to its findings, there is a possible discrepancy of $80 million that could possibly still be added to the fund, which would extend savings past the original $100 million mark.

 

Space Race

At the same time, California prisons were over 200 percent capacity. They were so full that in the 2011 case Plata vs. Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowding violated a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment Rights, and ordered a decrease in prison population to 137.5 percent capacity, or roughly 113,000 individuals.

Immediately following the ruling, Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 109. Also known as prison realignment, AB 109 moved nonviolent, low-level criminals out of state prisons and into county jails for the duration of their sentence. By the end of 2013, the legislation had reduced the prison population by 17 percent—a significant amount, but still well under the levels appointed by the Supreme Court.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), within the first three months of Prop. 47’s passing, prison population fell below the Court-appointed ruling, to roughly 112,000. This decrease happened a full year before the Court-appointed date.  By September of 2015, 4,454 people serving for nonviolent, nonsexual offenses were released from state prisons. As of a July 31, 2016 report, the CDCR claimed 128,523 individuals in custody with 123,661 of those incarcerated held in-state and 4,860 held in other states.

 

Running the Numbers

Last month, California Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris, released the 2015 Crime In California report, which found that between 2014 and 2015, violent and property crime increased a total of 8.1 and 6.6 percent, respectively.

On a more local level, the 2015 Santa Cruz Police Department’s Annual Report shows a similar trend. Overall crime rose approximately seven percent over the year, with a nine percent increase in property crime, and bicycle theft increase of 19 percent.

“I’ve seen a decline in general civility in Santa Cruz. There are more break-ins. People can’t leave their stuff in their car overnight and there’s more drug use and needles found throughout town.” — Pablo Yale

“In 2015, the City of Santa Cruz experienced a rise in property crime, driven mainly by increases in burglary, auto thefts, shoplifting and bike thefts,” says SCPD spokesperson Joyce Blaschke via email. “The city also saw some decreases in violent crime.”

Why is the rising crime rate being connected to Prop. 47? Blaschke says one of the major factors that drives the debate over the law is that while drug users may no longer be incarcerated, they aren’t required by Prop. 47 to undergo treatment, either. That leads to a perception that Prop. 47 is feeding into a cycle of repeat offenses—and the increase in the type of crimes noted in the SCPD report.

“There is an ongoing conversation in our community regarding Proposition 47 and whether it’s achieving its purported goals, and what it actually means for public safety,” says Blaschke. “One of the unintended consequences includes repeat offenders who go on to offend again. People arrested for drug offenses that are nonviolent are not serving time in jail and not mandated into drug/alcohol treatment for their crimes. Unfortunately, many repeat offenders feed their untreated addictions through the sale of stolen property. It creates a cycle that leads to increased property crime while forcing fewer addicts into treatment. It can be challenging to get addicts who are resistant to participate in drug treatment programs without the threat of prison time.”

While Hart says the latest numbers should indeed be cause for concern, he says they also require some context.

“Over the last 25 to 30 years, crime is at a historical low spot,” he explains. “When you look at burglary rates in 1993 in the unincorporated area, we had about 1,500 residential burglaries, and last year we had about 500. So we’ve seen a huge decrease in that time.”

The CDCR report highlights that while violent and property crimes have increased recently statewide, they are still lower than 2010 levels, and half that of the rate seen in 1996. It also found that felony arrests in California are down 29 percent while the misdemeanor arrest rate increased by 9 percent. Among the misdemeanors, almost half of the arrests were alcohol or drug-related.

In October 2015, the “Proposition 47: Progress Report” published by the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, part of Stanford Law School—found that almost a year after passing, only 159 of the 4,454 state prisoners released under Prop. 47 returned with new crimes—a less-than 5 percent recidivism for Prop. 47 offenders at the state level.

However, Blaschke says this isn’t as surprising as it sounds, due to the reclassification of crimes.

“Prop. 47 reduced crimes that were once felonies down to misdemeanors. Those newly transformed misdemeanor crimes are not punishable by a sentence to state prison,” she says. Because of that, “the state would now have less people sentenced to state prison and recidivating in the system because their crimes are no longer eligible to be sentenced to a term in state prison.”

Hope For 47

“There are a lot of misconceptions about Prop. 47, and one is that it’s a ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card,” says Henry Martin, director for the nonprofit Watsonville Law Center (WLC). “It’s important to understand Prop. 47 isn’t anti-law or anti-law enforcement. Instead, it applies the law fairly.”

Over the last year, the WLC has conducted three free information clinics for individuals interested in reducing their convictions under the proposition. Martin estimates the WLC has screened 200 people so far, but admits most people in the county go through the Public Defender’s Office.

“It’s damning to have a system that says, ‘You have a felony charge, you’re done. A lot of people are wild when they’re younger, but they grow up. I understand why others would oppose 47, but I think it opens up the possibility for people to change.” — Newt Jameson

“Prop. 47 was desperately needed,” he says. “We need to use the jails and prisons as they were intended: to separate people who are violently dangerous to the community.”

Santa Cruz County Public Defender Larry Biggam sees the legislation similarly.

“We should save prison, which is expensive, for people who really deserve it,” Biggam says. “Not put people in there who don’t threaten public safety. We shouldn’t put people in there just because we’re mad at them. It’s expensive real estate.”

In March, the Mercury News reported California has the sixth highest annual cost in the nation at $47,421 per inmate, most of which is spent on facilities and security.

To date, the Santa Cruz County Public Defender’s Office has seen more than 1,600 cases filed under Prop. 47. While this means a lot more work for attorneys like Biggam, he is happy with the positive changes.

“These are our kids,” he says emphatically. “They come from our families, our schools, our neighborhoods. We have a responsibility to deal with them and not just dump them into the CDCR at the taxpayer’s expense.”

As for the data, Sheriff Hart says it is “difficult to make an unemotional, well-thought-out decision. You can’t do that with just a year of data.”

Hart, a 25-year Sheriff’s Office veteran, was—and still is—a proponent of Prop. 47. He played a vital role in creating the Sheriff’s Office’s Custody Alternatives Program (CAP), which offers alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders, after the 2011 realignment.

“We really need to look at some of the long-term impacts of this law,” Hart says.

Blaschke, too, is cautiously optimistic. “SCPD fully supports the idea of a program that is proven to reduce the number of crime victims and crime incidents in our community,” she says via email. “In order for Prop. 47 to be successful, from our standpoint, we need to see a reduction in the harm to our community.”

Contributor at Good Times |

Mat Weir originally hails from Southern California but don't hold that against him. For the past decade he has reported on the Santa Cruz music scene and has kept the reading public informed on important community issues such as homelessness, rent hikes, addiction and social injustices. He is a graduate from UCSC, is friends with a little dog name Ruckus and one day will update his personal page, WeirdJournalism.com.

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