A Step in the Right Direction for Criminal Justice Reform in California

November 7, 2014
Tuesday night was a big night for criminal justice reform advocates. Criminal justice reform has become a rare point of bipartisanship among some Democrats and Republicans, and a number of successful ballot initiatives across the country show that voters care about reforming the system too. The initiatives passed embrace the notion of “Smart on Crime,” a replacement for the old idea that being “tough on crime” was the best way to make communities safer. Attorney General Eric Holder explained that “by targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime ‘hot spots,’ and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness – we can become both smarter and tougher on crime.” California voters showed this week that they too want to be smart on crime. Proposition 47, the California ballot initiative that reclassifies seven categories of nonviolent drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, was approved by voters on Tuesday (58.5% to 41.5%). By reducing these nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors, perpetrators will now be able to pay their debt to society and serve their time, but will face fewer obstacles to successful reentry afterwards. Legislative analysts have predict that about 40,000 California offenders each year will now draw misdemeanor convictions instead of felonies and prison officials claim to have identified 4,770 felons in custody who are now eligible to seek resentencing. The initiative will also give a new chance to some “three-strikes prisoners” serving life terms who have recently failed to obtain reduced sentences. Proponents of Prop 47 believe the measure will also save hundreds of millions of dollars, 65% of which will go to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25% of which will go to school truancy and dropout prevention programs, and 10% of which will go to services to help crime victims. The initiative creates a special fund with the money the measure saves and dedicates it to programs that support crime victims and seek to reduce crime. Deuteronomy 16:20 commands “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” (justice, justice shall you pursue). By repeating the word justice, our tradition emphasizes the importance of truly being just in our pursuit of justice. In order to seek justice the way that our Jewish tradition teaches, we must take action, like voters in California did, to reform the criminal justice system. We need to make strides not only in sentencing practices, but also in ensuring that individuals are ready for successful reentry upon the completion of incarceration. To that end, join California voters in pushing for change by urging your Members of Congress to support the Second Chance Reauthorization Act. This bill provides resources to state and local governments as well as community-based organizations to improve success rates for people released from prison and jail. Currently, two-thirds of those released from prison are rearrested within three years and over one half are re-incarcerated over the same period of time. The bill recently passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and we hope for swift passage on the Senate floor before the end of this Congress.

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