Sunday, October 26, 2014
This recent post by Professor Jonathan Simon at The Berkeley Blog explains the societal and institutional importance of California's Proposition 47, which will appear on the ballot this November. Simon begins:
California Proposition 47...would change the legal classification of many “nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from felonies to misdemeanors (read the details on ballotpedia.org here.)
This simple change has important consequences. A crime classified as a felony may be punished with a sentence in state prison, while a crime that is classified as a misdemeanor may be punished only with probation or a sentence of one year or less in a county jail. If voters approve Proposition 47, Californians convicted of crimes that pose little or no risk of violence like forging a check or receiving stolen property if the amount involved is worth less than $950 dollars (the existing dollar amount was set in the 1970s), or simple possession of drugs, would no longer end up in state prisons.
Moreover, the law would allow prisoners currently under felony sentence for one of these crimes to be re-sentenced “unless court finds unreasonable public safety risk,” a change that could result in as many as 10,000 fewer prisoners in our dangerously overcrowded and degrading state prisons.
The debate on Proposition 47 has mostly turned on how dangerous these crimes and the people who commit them are. Proponents, supported by most criminological research, argue that prison is a costly (approximately 62K a year for the average prisoner in California) and unnecessary way to address these non-violent crimes. Probation and if necessary some jail time have at least as good a chance of curbing future criminal behavior (our prisons have had a very high rate of recidivism and make no effort at rehabilitation) and with lower costs fewer prisoners means more money that Proposition 47 would channel into law enforcement, drug treatment, and victim compensation.
Opponents, most of the state’s District Attorneys, claim that the law would weaken their ability to send truly dangerous people who have been convicted of a relatively minor crime to state prison and use the threat of state prison to compel less dangerous people to accept drug treatment as part of felony probation (probation is also an option for many of these non-violent, non-serious felonies, at least for first offenders).
But the real issue is not crime (which remains at historically low levels throughout California); it is mass imprisonment.