A Ballot Initiative That Could Reform California’s Criminal Justice System

October 15, 2014
The United States has a problem with mass incarceration. Though our country only makes up 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. One in 99 adults live behind bars, marking the highest rate of imprisonment in American history! One in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control, which includes prison, jail, parole and probation populations. In California this November, voters have an opportunity to change that. Proposition 47, “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” is a ballot initiative that would reclassify seven categories of nonviolent drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, thereby reducing corresponding penalties. Any person who has previously been convicted of a serious and/or violent offense, along with any sex offenders, would not qualify for this change in classification. Charging offenders with misdemeanors instead of felonies would reduce jail time and eliminate some obstacles to reentry, as convicted felons face extraordinary trouble finding employment and housing. Prop 47 would create a special fund with the money the measure saves and dedicate it to programs that support crime victims and reduce crime. Proponents believe the measure would save hundreds of millions of dollars, 65% of which would go to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25% of which would go to school truancy and dropout prevention programs, and 10% of which would go to services to help crime victims. The measure is supported by a broad coalition of extremely diverse groups and individuals. The coalition includes members of the law enforcement and public safety community, many judges, elected officials, educators, faith leaders, and community organizations. The California Catholic Conference wrote a statement of support of Prop 47 explaining that a debate on criminal justice practices is long-overdue in California and requires thoughtful attention: “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. Prisons do not make good schools or good mental health programs. Proposition 47 can help us do better than that.” With six out of every ten people released from California prisons returning within three years, it is clear that incarceration alone is not solving the problems of crime and public safety or properly rehabilitating prisoners. Former Speaker of the House of Representative Newt Gingrich and California businessman B. Wayne Hughes Jr. explained in an op-ed that “it makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in. Studies show that placing low-risk offenders in prison makes them more dangerous when they are released.” Furthermore, over-incarceration does not make sense economically. California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year and $10 billion overall on its correctional system, compared to the $9,200 it spends per student each year. Gingrich and Hughes went on to say that “prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.” California is not the only state looking to address this problem, and many states, most notably Texas, have seen success. In 2007, Texas stopped prison expansion plans and instead directed those funds to probation and treatment. It has since reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, much of which has been put into drug treatment and mental health services. In fact, Texas’ violent crime rates are at their lowest since 1977. While prisons are certainly necessary for dangerous and hardened criminals, incarceration does not seem to be the best way to change low-level offenders’ behavior. Proposition 47 provides an opportunity for California voters to reform the criminal justice system and help dedicate efforts towards prevention and community solutions. There are many important ballot initiatives coming up in November, no matter where you live or what your views are, make sure to get out and vote and make your voice heard!

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