Proposition 47’s impact on the future of law and order in California hotly debated
NEVADA COUNTY, Calif. — On Nov. 4, Californians adopted Proposition 47, a sweeping ballot measure that reduced penalties for certain crimes — most notably nonviolent felonies such as shoplifting and personal use of most illegal drugs.
What many probably did not realize is that the measure’s effect was immediate. The very next court day, jail inmates charged with those felonies had the charges reduced to misdemeanors.
But what impact — good or bad — will this have on Nevada County over the long term?
It depends on which side of the equation you talk to, with opponents calling it a travesty and proponents saying it was a move that was long overdue.
In simple terms, Prop. 47 reduced the classification of most “nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from a felony to a misdemeanor — unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes.
The measure requires misdemeanor sentencing for shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery and fraud, where the value of property stolen does not exceed $950, as well as possession for personal use of most illegal drugs.
Anyone currently serving a prison sentence for any of those offenses can petition for resentencing.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, an estimated 4,770 state prison inmates are eligible.
The proposition requires a “thorough review” of criminal history and risk assessment of any individuals before resentencing to ensure that they do not pose a risk to the public.
The savings to the state — estimated at $150 million to $250 million per year — will be funneled into a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, to be distributed to the Department of Education, the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board and to the Board of State and Community Correction.
Prop. 47 also made it possible for people who were convicted decades ago to have their felony records disappear.
Judges expect that tens of thousands of Californians may seek to have their felony convictions reduced, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In larger counties, hundreds of jail and prison inmates already have been released and courts have been inundated with applications from convicted felons who want their records expunged.
FEW REGIONAL INMATES ELIGIBLE
Locally, the immediate impact is expected to be minimal, at least as it relates to reclassification.
Nevada County Superior Court Presiding Judge Candace Heidelberger said there are only a couple of inmates currently serving prison sentences, and maybe a “handful” in county jail who are serving prison sentences locally under realignment, who are eligible.
The majority of those eligible for reclassification would be those on probation, Heidelberger added.
After Election Day, the Nevada County Public Defender’s Office released a statement encouraging anyone who might be eligible to contact their office, saying, “We are prepared to review each case, determine if a person is eligible for relief and then petition the court on their behalf.”
According to Assistant Public Defender Keri Klein, there are only two inmates in state prison who might be eligible, and she filed a petition for one of them on Nov. 14.
“I’m still waiting for (the court) to set a hearing date,” Klein said Thursday. “I’m not happy with that … but I do understand it takes a little bit of time.”
Klein said she knew of at least one inmate serving a prison sentence at the county jail whose petition is in the works.
She added that there were many county residents who are eligible for some sort of relief on prior felony convictions, but that her office is prioritizing current cases.
“Felony convictions are a huge impediment to employment,” Klein said. “That alone is a great reason to petition.”
One immediate effect is that felonies that have been reduced to misdemeanors under Prop. 47 are being knocked down as defendants appear for court dates, if they have not yet been sentenced.
“We are doing oral motions in court and getting those reduced,” Klein said, adding that defendants are not necessarily getting released from custody.
Klein could not provide an estimate of how many felonies had been reduced to misdemeanors through those oral motions in the last month; jail staff said only a handful of inmates had been released as a result.
Prop. 47 “was long overdue,” Klein said.
“It will save the county, and the state, a lot of money,” she said. “It will help us focus on rehab rather than retribution and punishment, and it will create an opportunity for us to prevent people from becoming drug addicts.”
While Klein cautioned that it will probably be 2016 before funding becomes available, she said she saw the potential for immediate returns.
“It will make a more efficient court process,” she said. “Law enforcement can focus on solving serious, violent crimes, instead of some person walking around with meth in their pockets.”
CONCERNS OVER CONSEQUENCES
Local law enforcement officials decried the effects of Prop. 47, however.
“At this point it’s early … but I see a revolving door, I see an increase in crime,” Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said. “The public was sold a bill of goods.”
Royal pointed to the title of the proposition — The Safe Neighborhoods And Schools Act — saying, “the public was misled … The title is ironic; it will allow greater access to drugs, and that means a strong possibility of more drugs in our schools.”
Royal pointed to a correlation between those property crimes being reduced to misdemeanors, and drug crimes, and said he was concerned there no longer was a penalty to induce criminals to stop such behavior.
“People tend to steal weapons for two reasons — to use in the commission of a crime, or to sell for money to buy drugs,” he said. “The community is the loser.”
Prop. 47 definitely is going to impact simple drug possession cases, agreed Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell.
“We’re focusing less anyway on simple possession — this won’t change their marching orders that much,” said Newell, adding that narcotics officers are still looking at the big marijuana grows.
“The reality is, even when someone is convicted of 11350 (possession of a controlled substance) or 11357 (possession of marijuana), almost all those cases get a deferred entry of judgment or (drug court). This won’t change sentencing that much.”
This will limit some search warrants, Newell conceded, saying that warrants still can be written if the officer suspects possession for sale.
“The focus will remain the same, on people selling or transporting,” he said. “A bigger concern for me is the potential resentencing for people that were sent to prison because of a bad past … It’s hard to tell until we see the real impact — we don’t have that much crime here. Statewide, it will have a larger impact. Simple (drug) possessions are not a particularly dangerous group. It certainly takes some of the teeth out, as far as leveraging and charging.”
Several prosecutors expressed concern that some defendants who had pleaded to a felony count now will benefit from being able, in some cases, to have that reduced to a misdemeanor.
There is no remedy for an issue with a plea agreement that has already been made, Heidelberger said.
“You can’t go back and unring a bell — that is one of the unintended consequences (of Prop. 47),” she said.
‘A RECIPE FOR DISASTER’
In September, Newell and Royal co-penned a My Turn opinion article in the Sierra Sun with other regional law enforcement officials, including Truckee Police Chief Adam McGill, opposing the measure.
They said Prop. 47, “rewrites our laws to benefit criminals.”
“Locally, Proposition 47 may further burden our local criminal justice systems by shifting responsibility for additional categories of offenders to already overcrowded county jails. This measure would in no way benefit our local community or California as a whole,” they wrote.
Prop. 47 will also impact the popularity of drug court, with some arguing that defendants who now face only misdemeanor charges for possession have lost that incentive.
“I think we have to take the ramifications into consideration,” Newell said. “We have to revisit who is sentenced to drug court … we might have to expand to defendants with lesser charges, change some of the criteria.”
“We do a lot of prevention already,” Royal said. “The reality is, those who use drugs are not going to quit (until they’re ready). Now we’re enabling them.”
Klein agreed that it will be more difficult to make drug court attractive, but said the recidivism rate is so high, it’s time to put the focus on prevention and education.
“When we force them into rehab, they’re not doing it willingly — I think that’s a recipe for disaster,” she said.
Prop. 47 will put money into rehab programs “for people who are ready to change their lives,” Klein said.
“Hopefully, early intervention programs will help. What we have now isn’t working — this is something new to try.”
Liz Kellar is city editor of The Union newspaper, serving Grass Valley and Nevada City. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sierra Sun Managing Editor Kevin MacMillan contributed to this report.