The stigma regarding those who hold non-violent drug-related offenses is rampant in California. Though under Proposition 47, these offenders have the opportunity for shorter sentences in prison, they are faced with greater issues once they are released from jail: being labeled as unproductive members of society, being unable to build careers and likely committing future thefts or violent acts of crime. Many of these offenders already have careers, yet end up falling into vulnerable situations in which they are sentenced for using or selling illegal substances. So perhaps Proposition 47 opponents, who assert that the bill releases reckless criminals back into society, fail to recognize that the problem lies not in the acquitted individuals but in the prison system itself. Even so, we cannot simply rely on the provisions listed in the bill to overturn the crimes, but, instead, the enforcement who overlook these cases to do so.
Clumping suspects who have committed heinous crimes with persons who have committed misdemeanors as felons is a gross dysfunction of the criminal justice system. Without adequate room to interpret the nature of drug-related offenses, first-time offenders have been instituted in the prison system, overcrowding has been rampant and those who needed help recovering from drug addictions have never received aid. It is silly to allow the overcrowding of our prison systems to persist when many prisoners have merely committed non-violent or low-level crimes.
Last year, however, this notion changed with California’s Proposition 47, a ballot initiative which lifted sentencing for drug possession by making six theft felonies into misdemeanors. But with this year’s reports of increased percentages in property crimes, motor vehicle thefts and violent crime, law enforcement officials are working to reverse the impacts of Proposition 47. In 2014, nearly 60 percent of Californians voted in favor of Proposition 47. At the same time, 27 percent were in opposition of the bill. Just a year later, original opponents of the bill are collaborating to amend the proposition by adding various senate and assembly bills. This year, drug-related offenses fell but there were increases in residential crimes against property.
Since the creation of the initiative, staunch opponents, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, law enforcement officials and several county district attorney offices across California, have explained that the initiative has allowed a get-out-of-jail-free-card for criminals who deserve longer prison sentences. Indeed, the impact of the initiative is tangible. Law enforcement officials viewed the passage of Proposition 47 as a sign that voters were less interested in the incarceration of drug offenders and more interested in other crimes. Rather, voters wanted state funds to be allocated to other areas such as the K-12 educational system. California voters don’t want the state to build more prisons, but to ensure that those who are being imprisoned are being detained rightfully so.
Proposition 47 allows for the acquittal process for persons found using or selling illegal drugs to be determined on a case by case basis. Allowing the court system to do so has significantly decreased the number of prisoners in the state penitentiary system, which directly links to increased funding in other areas.
The fiscal impact statement for the initiative found that funding was to be reallocated to other programs in school truancy and dropout prevention, mental health, substance abuse treatment and victim services.
The issue, however, still remains. The provisions listed within Proposition 47 that allow non-violent drug-related offenders to reduce their prison sentencing — based on condition, since no one is automatically released from state prison due to Prop. 47 — has been wrongly accused of contributing to this year’s increase in property crime. But as San Francisco District Attorney and former Chief of Police George Gascon reminds us in the Los Angeles Times, it is not plausible for these offenses in property crime to be related to the release of prisoners under Proposition 47. This year, less than a quarter of the 43,000 prisoners were released from prison under the initiative. Additionally, it is wrong to assert that the initiative has solved the prison overcrowding issue, which has been perpetuated for decades. The effectiveness of the proposition hinges on the accuracy of risk assessments: pre-trial programs which assess the likelihood of the offender committing future crimes to fulfilling court case appointments and prioritizing jail bed space.
Harsher restrictions that lead to more jail time are not going to solve the problem. Rather, it is the people and their subsequent actions that will solve the problem.
Sarah Dhanaphatana is a junior majoring in political science. She is also deputy features editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Dhanapolitics,” runs Fridays.