By Phillip Smith
While the nation focuses on marijuana legalization initiatives in Alaska, the District of Columbia, and Oregon, a California initiative that would turn drug possession felonies into misdemeanors is quietly heading for a likely victory at the polls in November.
Proposition 47, the smartly named Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, is sponsored by two prominent California law enforcement figures, former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and current San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, and the campaign is being led by Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools. It has lined up an impressive array of supporters, ranging from crime victims' groups to the Catholic Church and racial and social justice organizations.
The initiative would attempt to address the state's chronic over-incarceration problems by moving six low-level, nonviolent crimes from felony/wobblers to misdemeanors. A "wobbler" is an offense that can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor. Among the included offenses is simple drug possession. (The others include shoplifting under $950, check forgery under $950, and petty theft or receipt of stolen property under $950.)
About 10,000 people are arrested on drug possession felonies each year in the state.
Passage of Prop 47 would also help the state get closer to meeting a looming deadline from the federal courts to shrink its prison population. A new study by the California Budget Project finds that Prop 47 would move in that direction by reducing the number of people sentenced to prison and by allowing those already serving time for such offenses to petition for resentencing in county jails.
In addition to reducing prison overcrowding, Prop 47 aims to reduce felony caseloads in the court system, thus freeing up criminal justice resources for more serious and violent crime. According to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office, if the initiative passes, there would be "state and county criminal justice savings potentially in the high hundreds of millions of dollars annually."
Savings from a successful Prop 47 would be dedicated to investment in mental health and drug treatment (65%), K-12 school programs for at-risk youth (25%), and trauma recovery services for crime victims (10%). The impact could be substantial.
"This initiative is very important for California," said Anthony Thigpen, president of California Calls, an alliance of 31 community-based organizations across the state. "We need new safety priorities that stop wasting resources on over-incarceration and invest in treatment and prevention. It's better for state and local budgets, better for public safety and better for the health of all of our communities."
While mainly flying under the radar, Prop 47 has still managed to pick up popular support. A California Field Poll in June and July had the initiative winning with 57% of the vote. And just this week, the campaign got even better news. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Tuesday had support for the initiative at 62%, with only 25% opposed.
It has also picked up financial support. According to the California secretary of state's office, Prop 47 campaign committees have taken in more than $3.4 million in donations (including more than $1.2 million from the Open Society Policy Center, $600,000 from the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, and several six-figure donations from individuals). And while the campaign has spent more than $2 million so far, it still has about $1.2 million in the bank right now, and will continue to fund raise to finance last-minute advertising.
If that is even necessary. Prop 47 has picked up organized opposition, in the form of the Californians Against Prop 47 campaign finance committee, but the committee, representing groups including the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Peace Officers Association, and the California Correctional Supervisors Association, has so far raised only $42,000. That doesn't buy a lot of TV ad time.
Opponents charge that Prop 47 would "release dangerous inmates," "tie judges' hands," and is "completely unnecessary" because the state's ongoing "realignment" is already shifting prisoners from the state to the county level. But the initiative's proponents rebut those charges, arguing that it "keeps dangerous criminals locked up," "prioritizes serious and violent crime," and "provides new funding for crime prevention and education."
"The reason I support this measure is simple: The more addiction and mental health services we provide to communities hardest hit by crime, the less likely another mom will find herself in my shoes. Having to tell your children that their daddy was shot and they will never see him again is something I wouldn't wish on anyone," said Dionne Wilson of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.
The group is a key part of the campaign and serves as a counterpoint to other crime survivors groups that oppose the initiative, such as Crime Victims United. That group has joined forces with law enforcement and the state district attorneys association to oppose Prop 47.
"When three out of four people go back to prison within three years -- and it's been that way for 30 years -- it's obvious that we need a new plan," Wilson continued. "This measure will save a ton of money that would be wasted on incarcerating nonviolent people for nonviolent crimes, which will then be reinvested into trauma care for victims, mental health services and drug treatment. I think that's what a sound public safety strategy looks like."
Prop 47 is also a response to the lack of action on the issue in Sacramento, or, more precisely, action thwarted in Sacramento. Last year, a defelonization bill sponsored by Sen. Jay Leno (D-San Francisco) passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D).
"Unable to get meaningful sentencing reform through Sacramento, this initiative is a tremendous opportunity to make responsible and significant fixes to our broken criminal justice system by allowing simple drug possession and other non-violent petty crimes to be treated appropriately as misdemeanors, avoiding the lifelong collateral consequences that go along with felony records and the unsustainable court and incarceration costs that accompany mass felonization in California," explained Lynne Lyman, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Prop 47 looks well-positioned to emerge victorious in November. But we're six weeks out now, and this is when initiative campaigns tend to heat up. The opposition is going to do its best to scare Californians into voting no, but it doesn't -- yet -- have enough money to make much of a media splash. At this point, it looks like California is on the verge of taking another big step toward addressing its chronic incarceration crisis.