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California's Prop 47 Hopes to Stem State's 'Incarceration Binge'

Diverse array of groups back reclassification of nonviolent, low-level crimes ahead of November ballot

California's Corcoran State Prison. (Photo: Steve Rhodes/cc/flickr)

California's Corcoran State Prison. (Photo: Steve Rhodes/cc/flickr)

Just a month ahead of the November polls, a California measure to reduce prison populations and institute a measure of justice for nonviolent offenders is gaining traction as a diverse coalition, including a legion of big-monied donors, have come out in support of Proposition 47.

“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, told the New York Times. Gascón added that for the large numbers of nonviolent offenders with mental health or substance abuse problems, "Incarceration doesn’t fix the problem."

The Proposition, referred to as either the "Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative" or the "Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act," would amend the state penal code to reclassify low-level nonviolent crimes, including certain drug and property crimes, as misdemeanors. The changes would apply retroactively, lightening the penalties for thousands of people already being held in the state's notoriously overcrowded prison and jails.

California currently holds some of the most stringent "three-strikes" sentencing laws in the nation, which sends repeat felons to prison for as much as 25 years to life, often for minor violations.

According to the Legislative Analysts' Office, the new policies could save the overall criminal justice system hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Under Proposition 47, that money would instead be invested in drug and mental health treatment programs, as well in victim services and support for K-12 public school students.

A recent analysis (pdf) by nonpartisan think tank, the California Budget Project, found that should the proposition pass, the legislation will likely reduce recidivism rates, improve community health, lower crime rates and reduce criminal justice spending.


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According to recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California, 62 percent of California voters already support the proposition.

The proposition aims to stem the "over incarceration of our communities," said the AFL-CIO in their official endorsement of the measure. "The impact of mass incarceration can be felt on neighborhoods, families and individuals across the nation. As a result, many already-impoverished neighborhoods have lost thousands of working-age men and women whose lives are forever affected by mass incarceration."

The national labor organization is just one of a diverse collection of groups and individuals that have come out in support of Proposition 47, which also includes rapper Jay Z and the California Catholic Conference of Bishops.

"A debate on criminal justice practices is long-overdue in California and it requires thoughtful attention," said the Most Revered Jaime Soto, president of the California Catholic Conference and Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, in their statement backing the measure. "Distilling complex realities to 'soft' or 'tough' on crime slogans ignores the fact that we are dealing with real human lives, with complicated social dynamics and with the need to balance accountability, justice and fairness in our justice system."

Soto adds: "Prisons do not make good schools or good mental health programs."

Large donations have poured in from rights groups including the NAACP and Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union as well as over $1.2 million from George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center, according to MapLight. 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, however, was gifted by a conservative Christian businessman named 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.

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