California's Prop 47: Prison Reform Wins Big

by Phylisa Wisdom

Today I got an email from President Obama (I know you did too, I just like to pretend they're just for me). He opened with this: "The hardest thing in politics is changing the status quo. The easiest thing is to get cynical." He's right. Among the overwhelming Republican Senate sweep and House of Representatives victories were some progressive victories. One of the most exciting results is the passage of California Proposition 47: a massive prison reform initiative.

Prop 47 passed with a 58.5% majority vote — a vote that makes California the first state to reclassify several felonies as misdemeanors, thus reducing the number of crimes punishable by prison sentence. Reclassified crimes include grand theft, shoplifting, and receiving stolen property of less than $950. Up to 10,000 felons currently serving time in California prisons are now eligible for release as a result of the vote, although the release will not be automatic; prisoners will have to petition courts for their release. Jeffery Stotter, an attorney in Redding, explains to KRCR TV why the passage of Prop 47 is good for the state:

Our prisons are full, our jails are full. We can't continue to deal with crime, and especially crimes like drug use, personal drug use, by locking people up. It will allow jails to have the space to provide accountability for people locally that presently know if they are going to get arrested, they will go in and out.

Here are a few of the changes that will come with the passage of Prop 47:

Drug crimes will be reclassified

Most controversial — and cause for celebration, in some circles — is the reclassification a conviction for drug possession for personal use (NB: this doesn't include marijuana, which is already classified as an infraction). Where they could previously carry felony convictions, most possession charges will now be charged as misdemeanors.

Changes to crime and punishment processes

Previously officers could arrest people on felony drug charges without having witnessed a crime being committed. Following the passage of Prop 47, an officer must witness the (now misdemeanor) crime, like a person selling drugs. Additionally, people convicted on drug charges will no longer have to undergo supervised probation once released from prison, which will free up key staff for other work.

Prison conditions will improve

The release of non-violent offenders is a big move to solve the overcrowding in California prisons, a problem that many prefer to respond to with fear-based policy making, like building more prisons. The passage of Prop 47 indicates a preference for sending fewer people to prison, rather than making space for more of them. An estimated one in five prisoners will potentially be affected by this legislation, creating desperately needed space in California's notoriously overcrowded prisons. Recently re-elected Democratic Governor Jerry Brown said last year that the prison emergency was "over," but reports indicate that this is not the case. Former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger described the prison system during his term as "collapsing under its own weight." Fewer prisoners mean better prison conditions and attention to human rights concerns. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

The degree of overcrowding in California’s prisons is exceptional. California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the three-judge court’s decision, the population was almost double that. The State’s prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.

Better outcomes for non-violent offenders

Anti-truancy, drug prevention and rehabilitation, and mental health services are among those that will receive increased funding as a result of Prop 47. Additionally, carrying a felony conviction makes rehabilitation much more difficult than a misdemeanor conviction does. Housing and social services are easier to come by without a felony conviction, and of course finding employment as a convicted felon is nearly impossible.

Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Putting people in prison — where the suicide rate is 80% higher than in the general population and the conditions are horrific — is not the answer. Hanging felony convictions on low-income, non-violent offenders who are often people of color because we're afraid is not justice, it's vicious punishment and most importantly, there is no proof that it's a deterrent. Californians aren't in any more danger as a result of the passage of Prop 47; the people who will be released have not been convicted of violent crimes. California should be proud to once again be a leader in progressive reform.