What we learned from California's Prop 47 in 2015

It will be several years before the full effects of Prop 47 are seen, but 2015 offers a good glimpse into the ramifications


The year 2015 was the year of early release. In October, some 6,000 prisoners were identified for early release into their communities as part of the federal government’s “retroactive sentencing reductions for nonviolent drug offenders.” That was only the latest news on the topic. Probably the most important example of early release programs in 2015 is the yearlong aftermath of California’s Proposition 47, a ballot measure which passed 13 months ago. 

The California initiative converted certain “nonviolent offenses” from felonies to misdemeanors in an attempt to decrease the overcrowding California prison population issues. The measure’s plan made all shoplifting, embezzlement, writing bad checks, and other theft crimes under $950 to be a misdemeanor (a far cry from the $400 that had always made these crimes a felony charge). Other charges that are no longer felonies include most drug possessions. Under Prop 47, those charged with the abovementioned crimes would receive a citation with a court date about one month away instead of being booked into jail on what would previously have been a felony count. California had hopes to reduce 40,000 felony convictions per year, which represents 1/5 of the annual convictions in the state.

The measure won — with 59 percent of the vote — on the promise of saving hundreds of millions of dollars on correctional spending and to be able to avoid building new prisons. The saved funds were said to be going toward funding school programs as well as mental illness and drug treatment programs.

The Crooks Win
Since Prop 47 went into effect, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) have released almost 4,800 prisoners from state prisons due to resentencing under Prop 47. Cops and COs largely have nothing good to say about Prop 47, but criminals think it's the best thing since sliced bread.

Inmates are fans of Prop 47 because it keeps them out of jail, allowing them to keep using illegal drugs and keep committing crime. Even if they miss their court date (which in turn gives them a warrant), inmates know the crimes and the misdemeanor warrants will not keep them locked up long. Inmates view misdemeanors as “not a big deal” and shrug their shoulders. It does not matter that there are hardworking citizens who are being victimized. Criminals usually never show remorse or empathy for their victims. Criminals have a great way of decriminalizing and minimizing their crimes. With Prop 47, the state and the criminals both are doing just that.

Prop 47 sends a message that it’s not serious to commit these crimes since they are classified only a misdemeanor. A known gang member in Palm Springs was caught and arrested with a stolen gun and when the officer told him he would be receiving a citation, his response was, “But I had a gun. What is wrong with this country?” If these are the words of a gun-toting gang banger, this speaks volumes.

When the Federal release made national headlines, one California law enforcer was vocal in his assessment of what he’d seen in his state throughout the year. San Diego Police Department Chief Shelley Zimmerman has said, “It’s a slap on the wrist the first time and the third time and the 30th time, so it’s a virtual get-out-of-jail free card…we’re catching and releasing the same people over and over.” 

The law no doubt has provided the freedom for allowing repeat offenders to continue to break the law without much consequence. As soon as they receive a citation, they are sent on their merry way to burglarize, steal or retrieve more dope. Some have been arrested and cited out more than once in a day, still out on the streets offending.

The day Prop 47 passed, the majority of correctional officers and police officers could not believe anyone thought this was a good idea. Everyone agreed that crime would no doubt increase. Within one week of this law passing, it was apparent that Prop 47 was going to continue to change the world of law enforcement and corrections as we know it. Today, thirteen months later, our views have not changed — they have only been proven.

California police officers and deputies working the streets agree that crime is up. They see Prop 47 as one of the primary reasons property crimes have become rampant and narcotics arrests have gone down. 

The property and violent crime statistics in particular are alarming. Los Angeles shows an 11 percent rise in property theft. San Francisco’s robberies are up 23 percent. Sacramento shows a 25 percent increase in violent crimes including homicide, rape, robberies, and aggravated assaults. The sad truth to all these statistics is that these are just the reported numbers; the numbers are likely much greater. Some smaller cities within the state show a 20-40 percent increase in crime. 

Further, a California Highway Patrol office shows statistics for pursuits in 2015 to have more than doubled. Most of these pursuit arrests included offenders with a rap sheet riddled with drug possession and property crime. 

Not Played Out as Promised
Government legislators made promises that Prop 47 would focus on rehabilitation as opposed to long sentences. The money “saved” by Prop 47 was promised to assist schools with programs for truancy, drug treatment, and the mentally ill. But those dollars apparently will not be disseminated until August 2016. 

Like all government issues, it all ties back to money. And having not seen any money leaves us with the question of how long it will take before we even know if the promised programs can make any difference.

The government believes we cannot incarcerate our way out of a drug problem — that rehabilitation is the key factor. This is true, but they fail to recognize that these programs are not going to work unless the person wants the help and wants to make the change. An addict needs to hit rock bottom before being ready, and the majority of addicts are never ready. Inmates have told me rehabilitation will not work for them as they do not want to stop using. Now with Prop 47, there is no incentive to go into a program when their jail time will be less than six months and they can be back out on the streets. 

While I understand why we want to offer rehabilitation to those who are ready and want help, for the majority of the state’s recidivists, how many chances do we have to give? How many more innocent people need to become victims? Why are we catering to our criminals instead of keeping them locked up? These individuals have a choice and if they choose to continue to harm society, they belong off the streets. Why not build a new prison and create new jobs while protecting society? We should be working at making the state the best we can be, not helping it fall apart. 

Learning from 2015 California
Other states are looking into fixing their overcrowding issues with similar laws to the one adopted in California. But let’s look at California’s experience in 2015 and make a sober assessment of it. 

Statistics have shown an average of 10 percent rise in property crime in California cities in 2015. Some smaller towns were much higher. 

Is this what we really wanted or expected out of Prop 47? Is that what the nation wants or expects with their early release and reclassification propositions? 

The nation does not need more crime. We need to quell crime, fight for protecting Americans, stop criminals before they strike, and build another prison or two if necessary. Lock up those who continue to terrorize time and time again.

Sadly, nothing is likely to change for California until or unless someone prominent or famous is killed or harmed from the effects of Prop 47. It will be years before the full effects of Prop 47 are seen, but the year 2015 offers a good glimpse into the ramifications. At this rate, we are plain in trouble. Crime will continue to rise and these criminals will not be locked up for longer sentences until a horrific act of violence occurs while they are high or trying to get away from the police.

As a national trend moving forward, I believe we could be further in trouble if other states adopt a concept like California’s Proposition 47. With violence and assaults against police on the rise, property crimes skyrocketing, and shorter sentences being imposed, it is a recipe for disaster.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.