Prop 47 is a really, really good piece of legislation. The official name of the prop is the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative and was passed by CA voters in November of 2014. Prop 47 injected some much needed reform (some might say common sense) into the management & classification of penal sentencing codes. In a nutshell Prop 47 re-classified ‘non-serious, non-violent crimes’ as misdemeanors instead of felonies (unless the offender had prior convictions for violent crimes & sexual offenses). Even more appealing is the re-sentencing clause that was built into Prop 47 that allows inmates currently serving a prison sentence for any of the offenses that the initiative reduced to misdemeanors to petition for immediate relief. The figures vary, but safe estimates conclude that roughly 10,000 inmates were eligible for resentencing under Prop 47 guidelines. In order to assuage the visceral fears that thousands of inmates were soon to be released into communities across CA a mechanism for holistic risk assessment of individual offenders was also integrated into the Prop 47 platform to ensure only suitable offenders would be released. Additionally, Prop 47 founded the Safe Neighborhoods & Schools Fund to funnel savings from this reduction of prison populations into various other channels. As is the case with any large scale estimations figures vary, but approximately $150-$250 million in savings per year have been allocated for the Department of Education, the Victim Compensation & Government Claims Board, and other governmental entities.
With this baseline information alone it would strike most prudent observers that Prop 47 is indeed a really, really good piece of legislation. But hold your horses folks because it gets even better when placed in the context of the post Realignment correctional climate. Realignment put considerable (and deliberate) strain on jails that were already functioning as multipurpose institutions. After Realignment jails became the singular destination for a large number of drug and property offenders who could no longer be housed in prisons, along with probation and parole violators who similarly could no longer do time at prisons. As one would expect Realignment had immediate impacts on jail populations causing them to rise at a dangerously unsustainable rate (a phenomenon Anjuli Verma has dubbed ‘trans-incarceration’). By June 2014, 3 years after Realignment and five months prior to Prop 47, the majority of county jails were at or above 90% of their relative capacity. The statewide jail population spiked at 83,280 which was just below the all-time high of 84,046 reached in 2007. After the passage of Prop 47 the jail population immediately dropped by 11% from 82,005 to 73,253 in 4 months.
To summarize, Prop 47 reduced the penalties associated with certain offenses that in turn reduced the number of lower-level drug and property offenders in custody that, to a certain extent, offset the large influx of such prisoners into jails from prisons. From the time Prop 47 was passed in November 2014 to October 2015, the volume of inmates held for property offenses decreased by 13% and the amount held for drug offenses dropped 35%.
For all the good that can be attributed to Prop 47 one crucial area of correctional reform was not addressed. It is the elephant in the room for any conversation & action guided towards reform efforts. Minority over representation is still as prominent as ever in the post prop 47 era. Despite the dramatic changes to the composition of offenders in jails, the demographic breakdown remains largely unchanged. People of color continue to be the majority of inmates housed in jails.
Realignment caused an unprecedented shift in custodial responsibility that threatened to destabilize county jails across CA. Prop 47 helped mitigate the blowback and demonstrates that sometimes voters do get things right when it comes to commonsense criminal justice and prison reform efforts. Prop 57, passed in November 2016, offers a parallel potential to fuel sensible reform efforts. Perhaps this blogger will revisit Prop 57’s impact once comparable data is available.