Prop. 47 — CA no longer tough on crime?

Thanks to a new ballot measure, Proposition 47, voters in California could soon eliminate the last vestiges of the state’s tough-on-crime reputation. In a sea change from the 1990s, when high-profile, grisly crimes seized the state’s attention, Californians have helped drive the national conversation about criminal justice toward a kinder, gentler approach.

But the reality propelling interest in the new measure is that California has proven unable to effectively run its prison system the way that courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — have demanded.

Major changes

Proposition 47 landed on the ballot with the backing of San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne. If the measure passes, the most frequent current crimes that carry felony convictions will be downgraded to misdemeanors. Prison time will be lowered, too, for such crimes to one year at most from the current three-year maximum.

That, as the Los Angeles Times reported, would be good news for Californians convicted of “drug possession, petty theft, possession of stolen goods, shoplifting, forgery and writing bad checks.” Those crimes made up 58,000 of the Golden State’s 202,000 felony convictions (based on 2012 figures, the most recent available). “Analysts say about 40,000 such cases would be reduced to misdemeanors; the initiative exempts offenses involving more than $950 and people with criminal records that include violence or sex offenses.”

The arguments for and against Prop. 47 haven’t surprised many California residents. On the one hand, it has long been common knowledge that California’s incarcerated population is high — by absolute measures, and relative to other states’ levels. In a black eye for Gov. Jerry Brown, his administration has been ensnared by the courts in a complex and awkward process called “realignment,” a way of shifting inmates from crowded state prisons into the county jail system.

On the other hand, Californians have not forgotten their state’s more sensational and frightening crimes. One of the worst even received mention during the recent gubernatorial debate between Brown and Neel Kashkari, his Republican challenger.

To ease overcrowding, California released Jerome Sidney DeAvila from prison; soon thereafter, in 2013 he committed a heinous crime involving rape and murder. The state’s police chiefs’ association has decried Prop. 47, saying the “dangerous and radical” measure will “endanger Californians.”

Easing up on convictions and sentencing would give California’s justice system a much-needed reprieve as it struggles to obey court orders to de-crowd. Yet it would be certain to ratchet up the risk of more violent crime — perhaps to a historic degree. In short, Prop. 47 has become associated with two different outcomes, one which many Californians desire, and one which none do.

An unprecedented coalition

With the measure poised between competing outcomes, its fate in November may come down to a public relations campaign. Oftentimes, ballot measures sink or swim depending on how voters view their fiscal implications.

Not so with Prop. 47. Although it would save the state some money, the amount recouped — a few hundred million dollars — would be a relative trifle given the size of California’s budget of more than $100 billion a year for the general fund.

That has placed a premium on presentation for Prop. 47’s key supporters. In fact, the coalition of activists and public figures behind Prop. 47 has raised eyebrows nationwide — suggesting that America’s traditional political battle lines have been scrambled when it comes to criminal justice reform.

Liberal and progressive support for a softer approach to crime has, predictably, given Prop. 47 a substantial push; George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center, based in Washington, D.C., kicked in $1 million.

At the same time, observers took special notice when former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also a 2012 presidential candidate, teamed with billionaire Wayne Hughes to promote Prop. 47 in an opinion piece for the Times. If conservative-heavy states in the South could reform their own prison systems, claimed Gingrich and Hughes, surely California could as well.

The voters will have their say on Nov. 4.

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com