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A Proposal on California's Ballot Would De-Felonize Drug Use

Proposition 47 would change sentencing for some non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, with the aim of freeing up space in prisons and saving money.

by Kayla Ruble
Nov 4 2014, 10:16pm

Photo by Michael Coghlan

There are more than 170,000 inmates incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's 33 prisons — all of which are operating at maximum capacity, leaving thousands of inmates housed in unsafe conditions and some sleeping in triple-bunks. When voters in the state head to the polls today they will vote on Proposition 47, a measure that supporters claim would reduce prison overcrowding, while making non-violent or non-serious crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Millions of dollars have flowed into the campaign to get Proposition 47 passed. Proponents of the "Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act" argue sentencing reform would mean those convicted of non-violent crimes like drug and theft offenses would serve shorter sentences and spend less time in California's overcrowded jails — apparently opening up space for those convicted of more serious crimes like rape and murder.

"We have this incredible opportunity to actually sentence people a little bit more correctly and not over-sentence," Sonya Shah, an associate professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies and justice program director at Insight Prison Project, told VICE News. She said this measure was a great chance to correct over-sentencing problems, while also altering the assumptions we make about people who commit crimes. The measure permits re-sentencing considerations for anyone already serving time for the crimes that would be reclassified. 

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If the proposition passes today, it would make California the first state in the country to "de-felonize" the use of all drugs, according to the Los Angeles Times. Possession of drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, for example, would now be misdemeanors under the measure.

Opponents of the bill argue that the bill will cause an increase in crime. One such opponent, Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff, told local news station KESQ that, "this all boils down to the fact that Proposition 47 will result in more crime, new victims, and less safety."

Shah said some of the criticism she has heard claims that keeping these offenders out of jail will lead to an increase in sexual assault, especially in cases where drugs are used to initiate sexual violence. She refuted the claim, saying that the proposition would actually benefit these survivors by increasing funding to treatment programs.

Supporters say millions of dollars would be saved, leaving funds to allocate towards treatment programs and community services.

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"We can divert the money we save and redirect that money into mental health systems, rehabilitation, and restorative services," Shah explained. "If no other argument should work, a financial one should."

According to the proposal, the measure would "invest the savings generated from this Act into prevention and support programs in K-12 schools, victim services, and mental health and drug treatment." The proposition would also create the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, 10 percent of which would go to trauma recovery, 65 percent to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, and 25 percent to the Department of Education for the purpose of crime prevention and support programs in K-12 schools.

By putting more money towards these type of systems, as well as treatment and support services for crime victims, communities would become safer, according to the bill's supporters. In her work, Shah said she has a difficult time directing crime victims to support centers because so few exist.

"If you've experienced a robbery or you got attacked on the street, you need support right away, and we don't have anything like that," she said, adding that it would be "amazing" to redirect funds to that kind of care via Proposition 47.

According to Shah, people in California backing the bill "are really stepping up and saying look what we've done in the last 40 years." 

"We've created a system of incarceration that wasn't around before," Shah said, saying this measure is about "dismantling and deconstructing something that didn't need to be there in the first place."

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Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

Image via Flickr