California's Proposition 47 is a Vote to Slow Mass Incarceration

Californians adopted Proposition 47 on Tuesday, a pivotal reform to address mass incarceration.

November 6, 2014
Mass Incarceration Protest in Los Angeles

Californians adopted a pivotal reform Tuesday to address mass incarceration.  Proposition 47 requires certain low level offenses to be sentenced as misdemeanors. This measure will reduce sentence length for thousands of offenders in the system both prospectively and retroactively.

Proposition 47 requires all drug possession offenses and theft offenses for goods valued at less than $950 be sentenced as misdemeanors. Prior to this amendment, such offenses could be sentenced as felonies requiring longer terms of incarceration. This amendment applies unless the defendant has a prior conviction for murder, rape, sex offenses or certain gun-related crimes.

The provision is expected to save the state millions.  The savings are earmarked for grants to support various services to improve the justice system. Twenty-five percent of the savings will apply to educational programs to reduce truancy and drop outs in among K-12 public school students. Ten percent of the savings will be applied to a victim services grant.  The remainder – 65 percent -- will support mental health and drug abuse treatment programs aimed to reduce the reoccurrence of crime amongst individuals in the criminal justice system.

California struggles with the social and fiscal costs of mass incarceration. Approximately two-thirds of inmates released from prison recidivate within three years.  Until recently, limited resources and systemic prison overcrowding prevented most offenders from receiving treatment to address underlying factors driving criminality.  At the same time, the state suffered the nation’s most overcrowded prison system.  It took a 2011 order from the U.S. Supreme for the state to begin significantly reducing its prison population. 

And reduce the population it has.  California is now the site of great experiment in the fight to reduce mass incarceration.  In 2011, the state adopted the Public Safety Realignment Plan, which shifts supervision for nonviolent, nonserious, nonsex offenders from the state to counties.  In 2012, Californians reduced the severity of its harsh three-strikes law through Proposition 36. Now third-strike offenses are limited to serious or violent offenses.  Before, the third strike could include any type of felony offense, including drug possession and theft – offenses now reclassified as misdemeanors for most offenders through Proposition 47’s passage.

It remains to be seen whether Proposition 47 will improve California’s justice system such that other states will follow its lead.  Many states will wait and watch this broad measure’s effect on public safety.  But two things are certain.  First, Californians are attuned to the pressures mass incarceration places on the state and they are willing to adopt reforms to alleviate those pressures.  Second, Californians are not afraid to reduce sentence length for certain offenders currently incarcerated, even as state politicians are hesitant to do so.  These developments are encouraging as other states and the federal government consider reforms to address severe prison overcrowding in their jurisdictions as well.

(Photo: Flickr/NeonTommy)