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Under the radar: Resentencing prison inmates

Inmates in a crowded area at the state prison in Lancaster, Los Angeles County. (Photo: Associated Press)

The statewide battle in the airwaves over Tuesday’s ballot propositions has been dominated by health insurance regulation, water works and drug testing doctors, but one measure that would have a far-reaching effect on judicial policy is flying under the radar.

That is Proposition 47, which would resentence thousands of California prison inmates imprisoned for nonserious or nonviolent crimes and downgrade an array of such crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The money that would be saved by releasing them would be used to pay for education programs for crime prevention, recovery services for crime victims, and mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, and writing a bad check when the amount is no more than $950 would be reclassified as a misdemeanor if Proposition 47 passed.

The initiative has captured relatively little attention in the mainstream media. But on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, it has proven popular: Since Oct. 24, it has been the most talked-about measure on the ballot, according to a firm that tracks social media traffic in real time, and it spiked dramatically on Oct. 27 after a posting by R&B performer John Legend in the Huffington Post.

An Oct. 31 Field Poll reported 51 percent in favor, 23 percent opposed and 26 undecided.

Backers of Proposition 47 say the initiative is long overdue.

“We shouldn’t be spending money in ways that don’t benefit the people,” says Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. “[This will] focus on what is best for the people of California, keeping communities safe…” Khan’s group, which works with donors to improve conditions for the state’s women and children, has contributed $25,000 to support Proposition 47.

Prosecutors see it differently, noting that easing prison sentences could endanger the public.

“[It will make it] more difficult for us to do our jobs,” said Sean Hoffman, director of legislation for the California District Attorneys Association. “[It’s] bad for public safety.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein also is opposed to Proposition 47.

“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.

Shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, and writing a bad check when the amount is no more than $950 would be reclassified as a misdemeanor if Proposition 47 passed, changing the prison sentences for the crimes and how they would be sentenced in the future. About 10,000 prisoners would be resentenced, backers say.

Support for the measure has come from such odd bedfellows as the American Civil Liberties Union and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at,” Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr. wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary.

“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.”

Monetary support has totaled more than $8 million with contributions coming from The Woman’s Foundation of California, PICO California, and the ACLU. The ACLU has contributed a total of $3.5 million in support of the proposition.

Texas stopped prison expansion in 2007 and put that money into probation and treatment, Gingrich wrote, and that state’s violent crime rates are at its lowest since 1977. South Carolina and other states are also making such changes to reduce prison population, he said.

Opponents suggest that the language of the initiative would make it impossible for California to do additional sentencing reforms later on, because language in Proposition 47 notes that changes can be made only “so long as the amendments are consistent with and further the intent of this act.”

Bail bond businesses, district attorneys, and law enforcement groups have contributed over $520,000 against Proposition 47. The Peace Officers Research Association of California has donated the largest amount at $285,000 while Aladdin Bail Bonds contributed $49,900 and the Lexington National Insurance Corp., California State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police Issues Committee and California Association of Highway Patrolmen PAC each donated $25,000.

People read the first couple lines of the initiative, said lobbyist Randy Perry of Aaron Read and Associates, a firm representing PORAC, and it “sounds like it’s a good idea.”

Theft of handguns, which often are valued at less than $950, would no longer be treated as a felony but as a misdemeanor.

But once they read the initiative, Perry says, they feel differently. He said the latest Field Poll, in which 7 percent of those surveyed shifted to undecided on Proposition 47, reflected voters’ changing views after reading the initiative.

Theft of handguns, which often are valued at less than $950, would no longer be treated as a felony but as a misdemeanor, said Perry. The same would be true for possessing date rape drugs and other drugs, except marijuana.

If a person has stolen a gun under $950 or has been caught with date rape drugs multiple times, they will continually receive shorter sentences as a result of the misdemeanor classification, critics contend.

“You’d be hard pressed to find counties holding people convicted of misdemeanors,” said Hoffman, noting that since the realignment program was launched, counties have had to take in state inmates and there’s little room in county lockups for misdemeanor offenders.

Classifying gun theft as a misdemeanor would create a “viable market” to sell stolen firearms to gangs and others as those with the misdemeanor offense will be in and out of county prison, critics contend, and most stolen handguns are used for violent crimes.

Proposition 47, meanwhile, received support recently online and then began rising sharply after Legend wrote an article for the Huffington Post.

Adam Kruggel of PICO California contends opponents have “willfully mischaracterized the measure.” and that penal code provisions dealing with handgun theft remain felonies.

Another concern by opponents of Proposition 47 is that the state’s drug courts, which give people the opportunity to undergo drug rehabilitation instead of receiving a felony charge, will no longer be of use.

“Who would go to a drug court now?” Perry asked as offenders would have to choose between one year of rehabilitation or three months in prison.

Inmates can be released only if they don’t pose an “unreasonable risk to public safety,” which is defined by the likelihood they would commit a felony. This would “tie judges’ hands” in almost every instance, Hoffman said.

Proposition 47, meanwhile, received support recently online and then began rising sharply after Legend wrote an article for the Huffington Post — a move that that captured widespread attention in social media and built a quick following among musicians and celebrities.

“Change in our justice system is long overdue,” Legend said in the Oct. 27 post. “America’s incarceration addiction has torn apart communities, disenfranchised millions of people — most for nonviolent offenses — and denied countless individuals an opportunity to gain employment, housing and even some of their most basic human rights.”

The social media discussion of Proposition 47 was tracked by Zignal Labs, a nonpartisan firm that examines and evaluates social media traffic, and analyzes data in real time. The company noted that in the final days of the campaign, Proposition 47 was discussed more in social media than any of the other propositions on the ballot, including two — Propositions 45 and 46 — that involved more than $150 million in spending between them.

“That is sort of how it has blown up,” said Josh Ginsberg, Zignal’s CEO, “whereas previously there would be more mainstream channels. You’re seeing this whole movement.”

How does that translate into voter action on Election Day?

“Does it lead to votes? It certainly is leading to awareness,” Ginsberg said. “We’ll certainly find out on Tuesday.”

 

 


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