California’s Proposition 47: An Unexpected Result in Criminal Justice Reform

By Vanessa Cunningham West

California’s Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, was approved on the November 2014 ballot by almost a 20-percent margin. The initiative reduces classification of most “non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” in California from a felony to a misdemeanor. Prop 47 mandates misdemeanors instead of felonies for non-serious, nonviolent crimes unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, and certain sex offenses and gun crimes. The initiative also states that any savings from the release of these defendants will be put back into education, mental health treatment, and victim services.

All this sounds great. Criminal justice reform in the United States is long overdue. Our prison system is seriously overcrowded and tends to be a revolving door for those who get put in the system. The costs associated with repeat offenders are enormous, and the burden of paying is on the public, whose tax dollars fund local, state, and Federal corrections facilities. President Obama recently stated that he believes our criminal justice system needs to be reformed. He has taken steps to start the reform process, but as other government leaders follow his lead, caution is advisable. To create effective, evidence-based, long-lasting reform, we must review and analyze all available research. Prop 47, while well intentioned, has serious flaws that may have wide-reaching and serious consequences.

Prop 47 turns felonies into misdemeanors for “non-serious and nonviolent” property and drug crimes. These non-serious and nonviolent crimes include assault, burglary, theft of an item worth less than $950, fraud and forgery (less than $950), and the use of illegal drugs. (Illegal drugs include highly dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine, as well as drugs commonly used in date-rape sexual offenses.) The main difference between misdemeanors and felonies is the difference in punishment. A felony is punishable by death, life in prison, or at least 1 year in prison. A misdemeanor, however, is punishable by up to 1 year in jail but no less than 5 days served. California law classifies a standard misdemeanor as punishable by a maximum 5-month county jail sentence and a maximum $1,000 fine.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) estimates that 80 percent of prisoners nationwide are seriously involved with drug and alcohol abuse and the crime it spawns. This means that most of the crimes people commit are somehow related to their drug and alcohol use. Research has shown that addicted people commonly commit robbery, theft, fraud, and forgery to feed their habit. These individuals will now receive misdemeanors and be set free with little or no punishment for their crimes. Prop 47 removes the “legal incentive” for seriously addicted offenders to seek treatment in programs such as drug courts.

The research consensus is that addiction is a disease, and people who are addicted need to enter and complete treatment to break their habit. By making illegal drug use a misdemeanor through legislation such as Prop 47, there is now no incentive or motivation for people to seek treatment, since they will basically not be punished. No punishment leaves them free to go back to their habit and the possible criminal activity it fuels. Think about it: If you were addicted, would you really choose to spend a year and a half or more going through withdrawal, treatment, counseling, and drug testing? Or would you rather just go back to using, with just a misdemeanor on your record?

Drug use fuels crime, and research shows that stealing guns does as well. Under Prop 47, any theft of a gun valued at less than $950 is considered a misdemeanor. These stolen guns are not going into private collections; they are being used in violent crime or stolen to be sold for use in violent crime. In addition, under Prop 47, those who could not buy weapons now have access to them, since their previous charges and any new ones against them classified under Prop 47’s “non-serious, nonviolent” definition are now considered misdemeanors. Under Federal law, anyone convicted of a felony cannot obtain, receive, possess, or transport any firearm or ammunition. This does not pertain to those convicted of misdemeanors.

What viable sentencing and treatment alternatives to legislation such as Prop 47 should we consider? Drug courts help seriously addicted offenders by offering treatment and holding participants accountable for their actions. Participants serve a minimum of 1 year in drug court while they go through intensive treatment, drug testing, and court appearances. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) reports that drug courts nationwide have a “75 percent success rate,” meaning that three quarters of adults who successfully complete drug court “never see another pair of handcuffs.”

Sentencing reform and mandatory treatment options for addicts would help decrease our prison population. Offering treatment to addicts would save us many millions of dollars every year. For example, drug courts are estimated to save taxpayers up to $27 for every $1 invested. Through reform options, people receive treatment to break the cycle of addiction, which research shows is linked to crime and criminal activity. This gets to the root of the problem instead of just slapping a bandage on this wound.

Criminal justice reform is a hot topic in America. Yes, we should foster reform and stop the revolving door that our criminal justice system has become. But we shouldn’t make drastic changes without considering the research. Yes, it is unjust that many people punished in the “war on drugs” got more time for growing marijuana in their homes than sex offenders did. When comparing home growers and sex offenders, the former are clearly less of a threat to society. But what about the methamphetamine user who steals weapons and burglarizes to support this habit?

States are now modeling their new criminal justice reforms after California’s Prop 47, hoping to put money previously spent on the prison system back into their budgets. But at what cost? As we look to reform our criminal justice system, we need to consider the advice of experts and effectively implement current research. We can’t expect any easy answers to this problem. Believing in quick fixes will have unintended consequences that may prove worse than our current criminal justice system.

Vanessa Cunningham West is a senior criminal justice research analyst at CSR, Incorporated. After completing her master’s degree in criminology at the George Washington University, she worked as a researcher at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Her criminal justice expertise includes criminological theory, behavioral analysis, corrections, and mental health and substance abuse issues.