Prop 47, a ballot initiative approved by voters in November of 2014, reduced a list of nonviolent drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. As a result, the initiative decreased the state’s prison population, and the savings were supposed to be used to fund community service programs.
The crimes effected by this initiative are shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, writing a bad check (all of these crimes cannot exceed $950 in lost value), and personal use of most illegal drugs.
“We saw those as crimes that are associated with poverty,” said Karren Lane, vice president of policy at the Community Coalition. “The stories that we’d hear from folks, like a mother who needed to buy food so she wrote a bad check” prompted us to push for this measure, noted Lane.
These crimes were considered felonies, or ‘wobbler’ crimes, which could be classified as either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the prosecutor or the judge.
“A judge or a prosecutor had discretion to charge you (with) a misdemeanor or a felony,” Lane said. “But we found in particular that with Black and Latino defendants, more often (than not) they would be charged with a felony.”
Prop. 47 took away that discretion, explained Lane, and is also retroactive; led to the release of thousands of inmates from prison because they were no longer serving longer felony sentences. The initiative also had a positive effect on people who had a felony conviction, but were not serving a prison sentence.
“For folks who are not incarcerated, but had a felony conviction on their record, it (Prop. 47) gave them a second chance by removing the barrier that’s associated with a felony conviction,” said Lane, noting that felony convictions can often prevent people from being able to obtain employment, receive educational financial aid, or live in federally subsidized housing.
Gilbert Johnson, a justice and safety organizer with the Community Coalition, knows the situation intimately; he had difficulties after receiving a felony for drug possession.
“I remember applying to the 99 Cents store, and they wouldn’t hire me because of my background,” Johnson said. “My rap sheet has non-violent crimes. I never inflected harm on anybody, but I had drug addiction issues. Because I had long hair, and I ‘fit the description,’ I received a felony, when I should have been diverted into a program.
“The reclassification piece is huge, because getting that felony dropped to a misdemeanor, opens up the doors to housing assistance, financial aid, better jobs because you don’t have that felony,” Johnson continued. “Prop 47 gives folks an opportunity at a second chance. I actually had that felony reduced, which was key, because when you get that felony, there is a stigma attached to it that kind of bars you from society.”
Johnson pointed out that about 690,000 people in Los Angeles County can apply to have their felonies reclassified as misdemeanors. The Community Coalition holds Prop 47 resource fairs which provides free legal aid clinics.
This initiative was also designed to fund community service programs.
“The tough on crime policies that the state was really investing in, and the city and county as well, were not making the community safer,” Lane said. “And were not dealing with the root causes of violence and crime.”
By reducing the prison population, there was an estimated $100-$200 million saving. That money goes to mental health and drug treatment, youth development services, and crime survivor services.
“There is more need in communities like South Los Angeles for mental health and drug treatment than there are services,” Lane said.
The state’s prison population has dropped over the past four years, with 30,000 fewer people incarcerated. Prop 47 has played a role in that, however, there has been a major issue with the funding, as California Governor Jerry Brown released his administration’s most recent estimate of state savings attributable to Prop. 47 during 2015-16, the current fiscal year. This estimate is set at $29.3 million, well short of the initial estimates.
According to Lane, the independent legislative analyst office, which is the budget analyst for the legislator, determined that the way that the department of finance calculated the savings is about $100 million short.
“That’s now the fight,” Lane said. “We’re here to bring attention to the fact that all of those folks came out, knocked on doors, voters intended to create this public fund with an initial investment of between $100 million and $200 million. The governor now is not executing the will of the voters.”
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution to support their efforts.