By Marisa Lagos
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — Voters will likely get to weigh in on whether California should treat most nonviolent crimes, such as petty theft and drug possession, as misdemeanors instead of felonies and spend the money saved on crime prevention and victim services.
The change, say backers of a proposed ballot measure, appears to be gaining traction with an increasingly wide swath of voters.
Supporters of the proposal, intended for the November ballot, said they had a surprisingly easy time collecting more than 800,000 signatures to place the measure before voters — far more than the 555,236 needed — and were delivering those petitions to county registrars across the state Monday and Tuesday.
The measure is backed by a politically diverse and somewhat unlikely group: Its official sponsors are San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and recently retired San Diego Police Chief William Landsdowne, and its supporters include conservatives including businessman B. Wayne Hughes Jr. They believe it could save taxpayers $150 million to $250 million on jail and prison spending each year, money that would be redirected toward crime prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and trauma recovery services.
Hughes, who made his fortune from self-storage facilities, said he has become increasingly interested in incarceration issues in recent years and founded a foundation that is currently providing "moral and ethical" training to 2,000 California prisoners. He said his firsthand experience helping inmates prompted him to support the measure.
"I am not an apologist for people who break the law ... (but) folks are coming out of prison better criminals than when they came in, and that is not helping to get the state where we need to be," he said. "When a mom or dad or kid goes to prison, a grenade goes off and the shrapnel hits everybody, and when enough homes experience this, we lose whole communities, and that's what we have here. Twelve to 14 cents of every dollar spent in California is on incarceration, and meanwhile our infrastructure is falling down. ... This is a situation where the walls of partisanship ought to come down immediately."
The measure was narrowly crafted to exempt anyone convicted of violent or serious crimes in the past, such as rape or murder, and does not apply to drug sales. It would require resentencing for anyone already serving time for drug or other low-level offenses, unless a court finds that person would pose a risk to the public.
Gascón, who also supported the successful Proposition 36 last year, which severely curbed California's harsh "three strikes" law, said that after decades of going the other direction, voters seem to be ready to change how they treat people accused of petty crimes, particularly drug addicts.
"I think, increasingly, the public is more aware of the failures of the last 2 1/2 decades of our criminal justice system," Gascón said. "The question is: Do we want to make communities safer or just punish people? If we really care about public safety, what we are proposing is a much better model."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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