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Prop 47 Seeks To Reduce California Prison Population

tomsaint / Flickr

tomsaint / Flickr

Proposition 47 would change felonies to misdemeanors for certain nonviolent property and drug crimes: Grand theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, check forgery and drug possession.

For most property and fraud related crimes worth $950 or less, the charge would always be a misdemeanor. There are some exceptions that allow felony charges. For example, committing other crimes, such as identity theft, in connection with check forgery.

The California Legislative Analyst estimates that about 40,000 people convicted of those crimes each year would be affected if the measure were law, but the number "could be higher or lower by thousands."

"One of the things that Proposition 47 does is it very clearly distinguishes between people that commit serious and violent crimes and people that do not," said George Gascón, District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco and one of the proponents of Prop. 47.

People now in prison with felony convictions could also apply to have their sentences reduced to a misdemeanor under the measure.

The California Police Officers Association called that a bad idea.

The Association is against reducing current felonies to misdemeanors for non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes.

"The proponents of this measure and the California State Legislative Analyst estimates that about 10,000 convicted felons would be released from prison under Proposition 47," said Rocklin Police Chief Ron Lawrence, representing the California Police Officers Association. "And frankly, this simply is neither a sustainable nor responsible method for reducing California's prison population."

Lawrence said about 80 percent of the felon inmates that might be released from prison under Prop. 47 include people with prior convictions for serious crimes such as "carjacking, armed robbery, residential burglary, and child abuse."

But Gascón said anyone previously convicted of murder, rape, child molestation or other felonies do not quality for early release under Prop. 47.

"This is not a 'soft-on-crime' measure, this is a very hard measure that will ensure that people who commit serious and violent crimes are going to get locked up," said Gascón. "But it also ensures that people that need mental health treatment, that need substance abuse treatment are going to get the funding necessary in order to deal with their problems and hope we keep them from hurting other people."

Lawrence, with the Police Chiefs Association, said reducing possession of the date rape drug from a felony to a misdemeanor is "reckless."

But Prop. 47 supporter Gascón said that's not an issue.

"Anybody that has been convicted previously of murder, rape, child molestation or other felonies, those people do not qualify for an early release under Prop. 47," said Gascón.

Gascón and Lawrence agree there is a need to reduce state prison overcrowding.

But Lawrence said Prop. 47 is not the way to do it.

"The intent I understand," said Lawrence. "But had the right players been at the discussion, the law enforcement professionals responsible for keeping our communities safe, had we been at the table, there might have been some meaningful discussion. But to decriminalize or to change the labels of crime in California is not going to change how are victims are affected by crime."

The measure requires any financial savings to be spent on substance abuse programs, K-12 education, and trauma recovery services for crime victims.

The state Legislative Analyst estimates savings in the "low hundreds of millions of dollars" from reduction in the state prison population under Prop. 47.

But, Lawrence with the Police Chiefs Association, said those prisoners and the costs of supervising them, may be shifted to local and county jails.

"Far too many cracks, far too many loopholes, far too many variables in the measure, that frankly, could possibly rise to much more victims in the state of California," said Lawrence. "And as a police chief we want to make sure that our victims are protected in any way possible."

Gascón said community-based supervision is a better use of funds to manage non-serious, non-violent offenders. 

"Proposition 47 is a common sense approach to our criminal justice system," said Gascón."People who are violent, people who are dangerous, those people belong in prison and that's what Prop. 47 is trying to do. For the past 25 years we've put more people in California prisons and the incarceration rate is 20 times greater now than it was when crime rates were higher in the early 1960s."

Supporters for Prop. 47 include the group Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice and William Lansdowne, a former police chief in San Diego, San Jose and Richmond.

Lawrence said along with the California Police Chiefs Association, groups that oppose Prop. 47 include the California District Attorneys Association, California State Sheriff's Association, Crime Victims United and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Lawrence said that Proposition 47 proponents "falsely claim broad law enforcement support."

"The real supporters of Prop. 47 are moneyed interests that have already put over $1 million into this proposition, not law enforcement," said Lawrence.

A September 24 report from the nonprofit research group Map Light, shows Prop. 47 proponents have raised $3.5 million and opponents have collected $43,000.

The top contributor for the measure in the report is the Open Society Policy Center, with $1.2 million.

The California State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police Issues Committee contributed $25,000 to the campaign to defeat Prop. 47.

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