For decades, California’s mindless “tough on crime” policies have led to overcrowded prisons, bloated budgets, and families torn apart by harsh sentences imposed for nonviolent crimes. Recognizing that prisons filled to more than 144 percent of capacity jeopardize the health and safety of inmates and prison staff alike, federal courts have ordered California to release prisoners.
The state’s voters finally had enough. On November 4, voters sent a clear message to legislators that they should stop wasting lives and dollars. Voters passed Proposition 47, a law that shifts the state’s philosophy for nonviolent crimes from punishment to prevention.
What does Proposition 47 do?
Known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Prop 47 is designed to ensure that prison spending is focused on offenders who commit violent crimes like rape and child molestation. The savings from prison population reductions will be invested in crime prevention programs. The law achieves those goals by doing the following:
Reducing the severity of certain nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
- Authorizing courts to resentence offenders who were sentenced for felonies that are now misdemeanors if, after conducting a risk assessment that includes a review of the offender’s criminal record, the court concludes that a sentence reduction would not pose a risk to public safety.
- Creating the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund. More than half of the fund will be dedicated to drug treatment and mental health programs to prevent recidivism. Other funds will be allocated to educational programs for crime prevention and to trauma recovery services for crime victims.
Proponents of the law estimated that it would result in a cost reduction of $150 million to $250 million per year. By spending that money on crime prevention programs rather than the warehousing of nonviolent offenders, Prop 47 is meant to have a significant impact on crime rates. At the same time, nonviolent offenders will be able to work to support their families and to pursue productive lives.
Similar reforms have been successful in other states. Texas leads the nation in its innovative program to divert nonviolent offenders from prison. By keeping nonviolent offenders away from hardened criminals while providing them with rehabilitative opportunities that include treatment programs and job training, Texas gives people convicted of nonviolent crimes the opportunity to change their thinking and to avoid a return to crime. As a result, Texas has closed three prisons, has assured that most paroled offenders are employed, and has benefited from a reduced crime rate.
What crimes are covered by Proposition 47?
The new law reclassifies several crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. In many cases, the crimes were “wobblers.” A wobbler is a crime that can, in the discretion of the prosecutor, be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Proposition 47 removes that discretion for certain crimes, making a misdemeanor charge the only option.
The reclassification of offenses took effect immediately upon passage of Prop 47. The following crimes are affected:
- Drug possession. Mere possession of some drugs was a felony under previous California law. Possession of other drugs was categorized as a wobbler. Possession for personal use of any drug is now a misdemeanor. The change in the law does not affect possession with the intent to sell the drug or drug trafficking laws. Nor does it change the offense of marijuana possession, which was already a misdemeanor or an infraction in California.
- Grand theft. Most theft crimes in California that involve property worth less than $950 are misdemeanors. Under prior law, however, the theft of a car and certain other kinds of property were classified as wobblers. Some thefts committed by persons with a record of theft convictions were also wobblers. Prop 47 reclassifies those theft crimes as misdemeanors.
- Shoplifting. Although shoplifting offenses involving property worth less than $950 are misdemeanors, prosecutors could convert them into wobblers by charging them as burglaries. Prop 47 makes theft law consistent by prohibiting prosecutors from charging shoplifting of $950 or less as a burglary.
- Receiving stolen property. Prop 47 makes the crime of possession of stolen property a misdemeanor when the value of the property is $950 or less. The crime was formerly a wobbler.
- Check forgery. Forging a check was a wobbler under prior law. The simple act of forging a check for $950 or less is now a misdemeanor. If the forger commits identity theft as part of a forgery scheme, however, the crime remains a wobbler.
- Issuing worthless checks. Intentionally writing a check that is not supported by sufficient funds is usually a misdemeanor. Before Prop 47, the crime was a wobbler if the defendant had a prior conviction for a crime related to forgery and if the worthless check was for more than $450. With one exception, Prop 47 makes all crimes of issuing a worthless check a misdemeanor. The crime will remain a wobbler if the check is for more than $950 and the defendant has three or more forgery-related convictions.
How will the new law affect me?
The proponents of Proposition 47 estimate that about 40,000 people each year have been charged with felonies for one of the offenses identified above. If you have been charged with one of those felony offenses but have not yet been convicted, you will benefit from the new law. The charge will be amended to a misdemeanor.
Misdemeanor charges carry shorter maximum sentences than felony charges. As of January 1, 2015, the maximum sentence for a California misdemeanor is 364 days. In addition, while some felony sentences must be served in a state prison, misdemeanor sentences are served in a county jail.
Misdemeanors are more likely than felonies to be punished with a term of probation. That outcome is easier to achieve in a plea bargain than it would be if you were charged with a felony. On the other hand, if you were arrested for a “wobbler” crime and the prosecutor was threatening to charge you with a felony if you did not plead guilty to a misdemeanor, that threat has now evaporated. You can now take your case to trial without worrying about a felony conviction if you lose.
If you are charged with a drug possession offense, it may now be easier for you to enter a drug treatment program as an alternative to prosecution or jail. It will probably take some time, however, before funding is available to make treatment available to everyone who needs it.
It is usually easier to obtain release on bail when the charge is a misdemeanor. If you are in jail because you could not make bail on a felony charge for an offense that is now a misdemeanor, you should ask your lawyer whether it makes sense to file a motion to reduce the amount of your bail in light of that changed circumstance.
If you have been in jail for nearly a year awaiting trial on a felony charge that is now a misdemeanor, you should ask your lawyer whether you can now be released on a “time served” sentence. You should be entitled to release automatically if you have been in jail for more than a year.
If you were sentenced for a felony that is a misdemeanor under the new law, your conviction is still a felony conviction. The change of offense classification does not affect defendants who were convicted before the new law took effect. You are, however, entitled to ask the court to modify your sentence in the interest of fairness to make it consistent with sentences that will be handed down in the future. The court is not required to reduce your sentence but, if you do not have recent violent crimes on your record, your lawyer will have a reasonable chance of persuading the court to cut your time.
Where can I get help?
Public defender offices are being swamped with calls from inmates. If you had a public defender when you were sentenced and cannot afford a private lawyer, you should contact the public defender who represented you. Be patient because you will probably have to wait in line.
If you can afford a private lawyer, or if your family or friends will help you with legal fees, you will likely get a faster result by hiring a lawyer of your own. While public defenders do their best to obtain good results under difficult circumstances, private lawyers are able to manage their caseloads so that their clients receive prompt attention.