The passing of Proposition 47 (Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act) in November 2014 continues to cause a whirl of controversy amongst community members, law enforcement and within the political arena. The initiative was supported by the California Catholic Conference of Bishops, as well as the Office of Restorative Justice Directors throughout the state. These Catholic clergy and lay leadership representatives recognize the prop 47 initiative as being consistent with the recommendations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration on Crime and Criminal Justice and within the basic tenets of Catholic Social teaching. They also recognized the potential for achieving greater public safety as a result of the initiative.
Unfortunately there has been much negative controversy about the affects of prop 47 on O.C. communities claiming the opposite. The bill has been blamed by some for an increase in crime, for taking power away from law enforcement and even for the increase in homelessness. The problem with these accusations is there is currently no sound data available in which to prove prop 47 has had any such negative affect.
Although some claim a recent spike in crime, the perpetrators involved released under prop 47 are within the 5% range. This is according to a Stanford Justice Advocacy Project report. The Department of Corrections also reports that of the 4,454 state prisoners awarded reduced sentences under prop 47 only 159 were convicted of new crimes. Although recidivism is measured in different ways, for example new convictions that result in a return to prison, this is the only data currently available.
Former prosecutor Hillary Blout, J.D., Statewide Proposition 47 Implementation Director for Californians for Safety and Justice, says that 90 percent of the negative accusations made about prop 47 are false. Many supporters have seen what they believe is a sense of sabotage by those Blout claims are resistant to criminal justice reform and change in current law enforcement practices and corrections that have not proven affective in reducing crime or recidivism. This lack of solution-oriented thinking leads to blame and fear mongering that destroys hope. Prop 47 has become today’s scapegoat for pre-existing issues caused by a system of justice long overdue for change. Reform isn’t the problem, it’s the resisting to the reform, Blout claims.
Some O.C. law enforcement members and political leaders are claiming that crime has increased. Yet other than the slight increase mentioned, most recent data indicates crime is not up uniformly; it is down/flat in major cities such as Oakland, San Jose, Fairfield and Richmond. Some field enforcement officers claim their hands are tied as a result of prop 47. Yet according to law, they have the power to arrest, detain and jail for misdemeanors if they choose to do so. Some members of law enforcement are also claiming property crime is up as a result of prop 47; this due to the change in law stating that property crimes under $950 are now misdemeanors. Yet a PEW Charitable Trusts Study of 23 states that also change their property crime misdemeanor threshold to under $950 saw no change to crime rates.
Billy O’Connell, executive director of Collet’s Children’s Home, an O.C. based organization that assists in providing housing for hundreds of women and children each year says homelessness is up because of recent changes in federal law denying housing assistance to those who are desperately in need.
Some opponents of prop 47 claim that those released as a result of the initiative are high-risk offenders who pose a serious threat to communities. However, the initiative states differently. Prop 47 has the ability to reduce the penalty for most nonviolent crimes (only) from a felony to a misdemeanor. Specifically the initiative is designed to:
– Reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors, unless the accused has prior convictions for violent and/or serious crimes
– Permit resentencing for those currently serving a prison sentence on a non-violent or non-sexual felony conviction, but even so, a judge has the authority to deny a request for resentencing if the judge determines that the inmate poses an unreasonable risk to public safety
– Require a thorough review of criminal history and risk assessment of individuals before resentencing to help ensure that they do not pose a risk to public safety
– Create a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund that would receive appropriations based on savings accrued by the state as a result of fewer incarcerations; savings estimated range from $150 – $250 million annually
– Redirect millions of dollars once used for imprisonment into preventative and restorative resources that include education, compensation and trauma recovery services for crime victims, mental health and substance abuse treatment, all which have proven affective in reducing crime and recidivism that in turn reduces further victimization within our communities.
Some things we need to consider about our support of prop 47:
– California incarcerates more people (including women and children) than most anywhere else in the world, yet according to the California Department of Justice we’ve still maintained one of the highest rates of recidivism in the country, generally between 60-70 percent within the first 3 years after release
– Incarceration’s punitive practices have done nothing to improve the person or their situation, yet out of the 132,000 people incarcerated 95 percent will be released back into communities, ready or not
– 1 in 5 people in California prisons are there for a nonviolent offense; at a cost of $62,396 per person, that equates to $1.86 billion in tax payer dollars per year
– 1,000 + new laws have been added to California’s penal code in the past 25 years, most of which are increased number of felonies and length of prison terms
– 8x the number of African Americans in California were incarcerated compared to the number of whites and Latinos at nearly 2x the rate of whites
– 1500 percent increase in California spending on prisons since 1981 – now at $10 billion per year
– In the past 30 years, California has built 22 prisons and one university, yet research shows education is an important factor in preventing incarceration and reducing recidivism
– California corrections spending is 80 percent higher than spending on its state universities and UC colleges combined
– From 2009-2012, California cut 21 percent ($586 million) from mental health programs – most in the nation – yet 1 in 4 of those incarcerated suffer from a mental health condition
– There are now 3x more people with a mental condition in jails and prisons than in hospitals
– Since 2010, California has given $0 to voter-mandated fund for drug treatment alternatives to prison
Punitive practices of incarceration is not the only answer to keeping communities safe and in many cases is more likely to create victims of crime than it is to prevent more victimization. As a result of prop 47, millions of tax dollars saved by reducing incarceration can now be diverted into Restorative Justice practices that include rehabilitative programing and re-entry resources proven to be more affective.