Proposition 47, the voter-approved ballot initiative aimed at easing prison overcrowding by releasing non-violent offenders, has generally succeeded in its goal.
But the controversial measure also has run into some glitches.
Researchers find that Proposition 47, approved in 2014, contributed to a decrease in rearrest rates while spurring a slight uptick in property crimes.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that Proposition 47 reduced the state prison population by 4,700 during the first year of the measure.
The measure trimmed prison and jail populations by reducing some non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Among other things, it reclassified possible felonies as misdemeanors for drug possession, petty theft, shoplifting and forgery — if those crimes carried a monetary value of less than $950. Individuals incarcerated under these classifications were eligible for resentencing and, ultimately, release.
In the months following Proposition 47’s approval, “jail populations declined sharply, driven primarily by a reduction in individuals being held or serving time for Prop 47 offenses,” noted a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. “Based on a sample of California county jail systems, we estimate a 50 percent decline in the number of individuals being held or serving sentences for Prop 47 offenses. This change drove an overall decline in the jail population of 9 percent in the year following the proposition’s passage.”
The PPIC study noted that Proposition 47 lowered California’s overall recidivism rate — the rate at which criminals are reconvicted and rearrested. That rate dropped 3.1% and 1.8%, respectively. For crimes specifically reclassified under Proposition 47, the reconviction and rearrest rates were each down by more than 10%.
Proposition 47 also has significantly reduced crowded state prison and county jail populations throughout the state.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that Proposition 47 reduced the state prison population by 4,700 during the first year of the measure. One year after the implementation of the measure, California’s jail population was down by 8.5%.
We in law enforcement are not receiving all the calls about thefts that are occurring.”
Mia Bird, a research fellow at the PPIC, noted that in the 12 counties the study covered, about 50,000 fewer people had contact with the incarceration system.
But the exhaustive study also found that Proposition 47 had a slight impact on property crimes — specifically, thefts from motor vehicles and shoplifting. Proposition 47 may have contributed to the roughly 9 percent increase in larceny-theft, the study found.
Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and co-author of Proposition 47, said that the PPIC’s report, which covered 12 counties throughout California, is consistent with other statewide reports when it comes to property crime. Anderson noted that each report shows vastly uneven shifts of crime rates at the local level.
There are concerns among law enforcement officials over the under-reporting of burglary and theft.
“Larceny is up 9 percent,” said California Police Chiefs Association president David Swing. “That’s what’s being reported. I know that if you were to reach out to the grocery and retail community you would see a stark difference in what’s being reported and what’s actually occurring post-Prop. 47. This means that we in law enforcement are not receiving all the calls about thefts that are occurring.”
Violent crime in California was on the upswing prior to the implementation of Proposition 47.
Despite recent upticks in property and violent crimes, California’s crime rate remains at historically low levels comparable to crime rates the state observed in the 1960s.
Swing said Proposition 47 took away the motivator to get people to go to drug treatment in exchange for getting their drug offense reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor by reclassifying possession of a controlled substance as a misdemeanor.
Despite the slight uptick in violent crime in recent years and overlap with the passage of Proposition 47, researchers found no link between the rise and the measure.
“Part of the increase [in violent crime] is due to a change in reporting,” Bird said. “While we’re left with about a five percent increase, we see that that’s similar to increases experienced in other states. What that tells us is that there’s something happening that’s broader than Prop 47.”
Bird also noted that violent crime in California was on the upswing prior to the implementation of Proposition 47.
“The idea that we can suddenly go soft on crime and not cause harm to people is just wrong.” — Kent Scheidegger
Although the study found no evidence of violent crime being affected by Proposition 47, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said many non-violent crimes can be just as serious as violent crimes.
“Many people are under the impression that non-violent means non-serious,” Scheidegger said. “When they hear non-violent, they think of someone being arrested for smoking a joint. Well, non-violent includes stealing peoples cars and breaking into their houses. Non-violent offenses include serious things, an increase in that type of crime is a serious problem […] The idea that we can suddenly go soft on crime and not cause harm to people is just wrong.”
Proposition 47 is expected to save California tens of millions. Through prison and jail population reductions, Proposition 47 is projected to generate $69 million annually in savings. It costs more than $70,000 a year to imprison a single inmate in California.
“What we see, over and over again, is that crime trends are a localized phenomenon.” — Lenore Anderson.
Bird said Californians have yet to see the full effects of Proposition 47 despite being passed nearly four years ago. The measure redirects savings from reduced prison populations into local treatment intervention programs. In June 2017, the state spread $103 million in Proposition 47 savings across 23 California cities and counties for intervention programs aimed at checking recidivism.
Anderson said the study highlights the need to continue the trend from a statewide, incarceration-based approach toward criminal justice to local, community-based solutions.
“What we see, over and over again, is that crime trends are a localized phenomenon,” Anderson said. “There are wild variations across the state. It’s important to replace this one-size-fits-all prison-first approach of the last 30 years with local dollars so that we can grow the kinds of local programs that work better than state incarceration.”
“We have to invest in the local level and the strategies that more effectively stop the cycle of crime, ” Anderson said. “We know what the drivers of crime are – mental health, substance abuse, unaddressed trauma – there are effective crime prevention programs at the local level that are better investments to taxpayers.”
After peaking around 165,000 in 2011, California’s prison population was down to around 115,000 at the end of 2017, according to a report from the PPIC. The report stated that “between 2008 and 2016, the proportion of prisoners convicted of a violent, serious, or sexual offense rose from 71% to 91%.” Most of these changes are attributed to criminal justice and prison reforms such as Prop 47, SB 678, AB 109, and Proposition 57.