Prop. 47 jolts landscape of Calif. justice system
Voter-approved initiative reduces penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes
By Paige St. John and Marisa Gerber
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County Public Defender Ron Brown walked into a Pomona court Wednesday and saw first-hand the effect of Proposition 47 — the voter-approved initiative that reduces penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes.
His office had deliberately postponed sentencing for a defendant facing more than a year behind bars for possessing heroin and methamphetamine to the day after Tuesday's election, waiting to see what voters would do.
The gambit worked. The man was sentenced and released from custody with no further jail time.
"They were felonies yesterday. They're misdemeanors today," Brown said. "This is the law now."
The day after California voted to reduce punishments, police agencies, defense attorneys, prosecutors and even some advocates were scrambling to figure out exactly how it was going to work.
The greatest effect, experts said, would be in drug possession cases, noting that California is now the first state in the nation to downgrade those cases from felonies to misdemeanors. Thousands of felons are now eligible for immediate release from prisons and jails.
City attorneys accustomed to handling traffic tickets and zoning violations are now responsible for prosecuting crimes that used to be felonies, including forgeries, theft and shoplifting. District attorneys who used to threaten drug offenders with felony convictions to force them into rehabilitation programs no longer have that as an option. Social workers said they worried that offenders who voluntarily seek treatment will have trouble finding services.
"It's going to take a little while to figure out," said Molly Rysman, who operates a housing program for the destitute who sleep on sidewalks in L.A.'s skid row. She is glad that drug users now face only brief stays in jail, if any time at all, but said options for someplace else to go in L.A. are "dismal." Rysman said caseworkers now spend weeks trying to find an opening for clients who need a detox bed or room in a treatment program.
Proposition 47 sets aside funding for such programs, but the money may not materialize for another year, advocates said.
"I can't say I agree with Proposition 47. It should have mandated treatment," said Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. "Most of the money from the initiative will go to mental health and substance abuse treatment, but how we will get people to accept that treatment is the question."
Lacey said her office would re-evaluate the more serious cases downgraded by Proposition 47 to determine whether there were other felony charges that could be filed. Under the measure, thefts, bad check writing and forgery charges are downgraded to misdemeanors if the stolen value is $950 or less. Lacey said she was particularly concerned about cases involving the theft of guns. Prosecutors, she said, "will be looking at alternative charges for some of those cases, because we should all be a little nervous when a firearm is involved."
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer on Wednesday asked the City Council for $510,000 to hire 15 lawyers and assistants to handle the anticipated influx of misdemeanor prosecutions, which previously would have been prosecuted as felonies by the district attorney's office. He said his office expected to handle 13,500 new cases a year, most involving drug offenses.
Meanwhile, jailers in Los Angeles County made preparations to deal with an unknown number of inmates charged with felonies that are now misdemeanors.
Because of severe overcrowding and court-ordered population caps, the Los Angeles County jails do not typically hold those charged with misdemeanors.
"It is going to take time to evaluate that, but we're not conducting a mass release, today or tomorrow," said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.
Legislative analysts predict that about 40,000 California offenders each year will now draw misdemeanor convictions instead of felonies. Prison officials said they have identified 4,770 felons in custody who are eligible to seek resentencing. And L.A. prosecutors have identified almost 4,000 offenders in the pipeline between arrest and sentencing who might qualify for more lenient treatment under the new law.
To get released, current inmates must prove that they are not a threat to the public.
Proposition 47 will also give a fresh chance to some three-strikes prisoners serving life terms who have recently failed to obtain reduced sentences.
Under a 2012 ballot measure, Proposition 36, most inmates serving three-strikes sentences for relatively minor crimes can receive shorter sentences unless a judge decides that they pose an "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety." Michael Romano, an attorney who helped write the measure, said the initiative did not define that risk for judges, many of whom used their own criteria to decide whether someone was too risky to release. The vast majority of three-strikers who have asked for reduced sentences have been successful, but about 118 inmates have been declared a risk to public safety, said Romano, who directs the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project.
Proposition 47 gives inmates in that small group another opportunity to ask for shorter sentences if their third strikes were for one of the minor felonies downgraded under Proposition 47, Romano said.
Inmates whose strikes don't fall into that category, he said, can also return to court and cite Proposition 47's new definition of an "unreasonable risk of danger," which Tuesday's ballot measure defined as likely to commit serious or violent crimes that include homicide, sexual assault and child molestation.
"It's a clear message from voters that our law enforcement resources should not be spent on three-strikes sentences or long felony sentences for these types of crimes," Romano said.
The new law also derails drug court, where felony charges were set aside for offenders who completed treatment regimens. Those who succeed have a high success in staying sober, but without the threat of jail, there is little incentive to participate, said Mark Delgado, executive director of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, which runs those programs. Delgado said county officials are seeking a substitute.
"Regardless of what the laws are on the books, we're asking, 'How do we best engage the individuals who need treatment?'" he said.
Brown, L.A. County's chief public defender, acknowledged that the proposition will change the "carrot and stick" approach used to entice people into rehabilitation with the promise of a lighter sentence. But he thinks that can be managed.
"We're going to have to work a lot harder to convince people it's the best thing for you," Brown said.
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