This November Californians will decide whether or not to improve our “justice system.” Our state prisons currently house some 136,000 individuals. For years we ranked first in largest state prison population in America. Recently Texas surpassed us but we’re still a strong second wearing the shiny silver medal of dishonor, the bronze goes to Florida with over 100,000 prison inmates. Since 1980 our prison budget has increased nearly 450% while our higher education budget consistently suffers. We’ve prioritized prisons over education. Our sky rocketing prison budget is not about California having more “criminals,” it’s about implementing policies that criminalize more Californians. Private corporations and lobbyists have succeeded in driving up our prison spending to nearly $12 billion. The numbers are alarming, especially when we focus on the disparate impact on black and Latino men who represent some 70% of our prison population.
Our penal codes need to be amended and unfortunately the state legislature has not had the courage to make necessary changes out of fear of appearing “soft on crime.” They also want to maintain support of the state’s multi-billion dollar prison industry. California voters have a rare opportunity to make the necessary change now by voting for Proposition 47 on the November ballot. This prop will certainly not fix all of the injustices in our criminal system but it does provide for some excellent prison reform for non-violent offenders. The language of the proposition is narrowly tailored to include 6 penal code sections pertaining to drug possession and minor theft or fraud offenses involving less than $950. The proposed language reduces these offenses from felonies (which carry possible prison sentences) to misdemeanors which carry a maximum sentence of one year in county jail. Anyone currently serving prison time for these minor theft or drug possession offenses may be re-sentenced as misdemeanor offenders and will serve a maximum of one year in county jail along with any additional probation terms that a judge deems appropriate. The language of prop 47 excludes persons with violent criminal records including rape, molestation or any other strike priors. A drug user or shoplifter with a violent prior strike conviction is excluded and will still serve prison time so there is no risk of releasing violent offenders.
Having served as a public defender for six years I’ve seen many good people with addiction and mental health issues sentenced to lengthy prison terms because of their history of substance abuse and non-violent crime. Upon release these felons are excluded from most employment opportunities and are stigmatized for what are often relatively minor offenses. Our prisons are full of non-violent offenders who need mental health counseling and drug treatment but instead of rehabilitation we spend billions on housing, feeding, clothing and incarcerating them for years while never addressing the root of the problem. Prop 47 does address some of these root causes. The estimated $150- $250 million per year in state savings will be re-allocated from prison spending to mental health and substance abuse treatment (65%), k-12 education (25%) and victim trauma recovery services (10%). This reallocation will address some of the root causes that result in high recidivism rates when left unaddressed.
As long as corporate money and fear drive political policy our legislature will never propose a bill like this. This is our opportunity as voters to show the rest of the nation that Californians do not see incarceration as a solution for addiction, mental health issues and non-violent theft offenses. This prop is supported by the San Francisco and Santa Clara District Attorneys, former San Diego Police Chief, California Teachers Association and numerous organizations that value individual life and public safety while rejecting the fear tactics presented by opponents. This prop is entitled “California Safe Neighborhoods & Schools” because it invests in our neighbors and schools, NOT in private prison corporations. Incarceration is only a temprorary fix that does not make us safer, investing in our communities does.