Election 2014: California Prisons

As the U.S. system of mass incarceration comes under increasing fire, Californians in November will be voting on Proposition 47, referred to as either the "Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative" or the "Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act," which will reduce prison populations by reducing the penalties for a number of "non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes."

Additional Common Dreams coverage of this issue can be found here.


CALIFORNIA: Proposition 47

The Basics:

Proposition 47 would amend the state penal code to reclassify low-level nonviolent crimes, including certain drug and property offenses, as misdemeanors unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes. The changes would apply retroactively, lightening the penalties for thousands of people already being held in the state's notoriously overcrowded prison and jails.

Under the measure, the hundreds of millions of dollars that the California criminal justice system expects to save each year will be invested in drug and mental health treatment programs, as well as in victim services and support for K-12 public school students.

"Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked," San Francisco district attorney George Gascón, who cosponsored the initiative, recently told the New York Times.

Official Summary:

  • Requires misdemeanor sentence instead of felony for certain drug possession offenses.   
  • Requires misdemeanor sentence instead of felony for the following crimes when amount involved is $950 or less: petty theft, receiving stolen property, and forging/writing bad checks.    
  • Allows felony sentence for these offenses if person has previous conviction for crimes such as rape, murder, or child molestation or is registered sex offender.     Requires resentencing for persons serving felony sentences for these offenses unless court finds unreasonable public safety risk.    
  • Applies savings to mental health and drug treatment programs, K–12 schools, and crime victims.

The full text of Proposition 47 can be found here (pdf).

Yes on 47:

  • The organization leading the campaign in support of the initiative is Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools.
  • Supporters also include: politicians; public figures such as Jay Z and The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander; organized labor groups and organizations including the ACLU, local chapters of the NAACP, Children's Defense Fund of California, the League of Women Voters of California, the Sentencing Project, the Women's Foundation, California Catholic Conference of Bishops, California California Federation of Teachers, and the California Teachers Association.
  • Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools summarizes their argument in support of the measure as the following:
    • Stops wasting prison space on low-level nonviolent crimes
    • Keeps rapists, murderers and child molesters in prison
    • Maintains the current law for registered sex offenders and anyone with prior convictions for rape, murder or child molestation. 
    • Stops government waste and redirects hundreds of millions from prison spending to K-12 and treatment
    • Protects public safety
    • Reduces the collateral consequences of felony convictions for low-level crime
  • According to Maplight, as of September 24, the Yes on 47 campaign raised $3.5 million. This includes large donations from such groups including the NAACP and Northern California chapter of the ACLU as well as over $1.2 million from George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center. Other big monied supporters include Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who contributed roughly $245,000, and Napster developer and venture capitalist Sean Parker, who recently donated $100,000.
  • The largest single contribution of $1.255 million, was gifted by a conservative Christian businessman B. Wayne Hughes Junior who, recently co-authored—along with retired Congressman and notorious conservative spokesman Newt Gingrich—an op-ed arguing the fiscal benefits of the measure.
  • Of the measure, Karen Long, an organizer for the Community Coalition of Los Angeles, said: "We see this as a social justice. We have been punishing crimes of poverty."

No on 47:

  • Opposition to the measure is being led by the group Alliance for a Safer California, which is a "voter-run independent expenditure committee." Other individuals voicing opposition include numerous California district attorneys, county sheriffs, as well as U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D).
  • One campaign committee, Californians Against Prop. 47, which is sponsored by California Public Safety Institute, is registered as opposed to the measure. The group has raised roughly $500,00 as of October 27, 2014.
  • According to Maplight, as of September 24, the No on 47 campaign raised a total of $43,500. The largest donation  of $25,000 came from the California State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police Issues Committee.
  • Alliance for a Safer California's argues that Prop 47 is "unnecessary" and will release "dangerous" inmates, "rewrite our laws to benefit criminals," and "make it impossible to stop many criminals from legally purchasing firearms."

Polling:

RECENT POLLS
DATE POLLSTER YES NO UNDECIDED
10/12/2014 - 10/19/2014  Public Policy Institute of California 59% 29% 12%
9/8/2014 - 9/15/2014  Public Policy Institute of California 62% 25% 13%
6/26/2014 - 7/19/2014  The Field Poll 57% 24% 19%