The midterm elections are now less than a week away. In California voters will have the chance to decide the fate of not only their politicians but also their prisoners.
Proposition 47 is on the ballot, and if it passes, the state will reclassify a number of low-level, nonviolent drug and property offenses as misdemeanors, reducing sentences and California’s chronic prison overcrowding. Advocates say that in the process, that would save the state $150 million to $250 million a year. If passes, Prop 47 will be implemented retroactively.
What is Prop 47, and how would it affect current prisoners?
Is California moving away from using punishment as deterrence? Or is this measure driven by the costs of incarceration?
Have American attitudes toward crime and punishment changed?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.
Inside Story: What would Prop 47 do, exactly?
William Lansdowne: It is a common-sense approach to overincarceration in California and across the nation. About 50 percent of people in prison today are suffering from mental health problems or drug addiction. It is overcrowded to the point that the federal courts stepped in to release people because of cruel and unusual punishment. In San Diego we worked very closely with probation and police agencies. We have not seen a rise in crime. In my time as police chief, I have watched them build 22 new prisons and one new university in California. I have sentencing of people who really need treatment. This bill will provide monies for drug treatment and K–12 prevention and services, and it provides monies for victims of crime.
But your opponents argue that this will increase crime again. How do you respond to their arguments?
The system obviously is broken, or the courts would not have had to step in. This has been done before, emphasizing treatment over incarceration. In Texas they have closed three prisons since 2009 and saved $1 billion. North Carolina has done similar things. In 2011 we changed the three-strikes law so the last strike had to be a felony. The recidivism rate is about 2 percent, and the recidivism rate in California is about 60 percent.
But even your successor at the San Diego Police Department opposes the proposition.
As an active chief, it is hard to take on the other chiefs. I could not have supported this bill if I was still working. People are afraid of change. They do not want things to change, but it needs to if we want to follow other states. Crime is at a low from the ’70s era, and we are building new prisons. Crime is about the same as when I started in 1966. To put this in perspective, when I started in 1966, there was a real issue with Miranda rights. They used to interview people for 14 hours until you got a confession. And the chiefs thought the Miranda decision would ruin everything. But it was the right thing to do. It made us more professional.
‘The system obviously is broken, or the courts would not have had to step in. This has been done before, emphasizing treatment over incarceration.’
former police chief, San Diego
Proponents of Prop 47 say penalties for violent offenders — rapists, murderers, armed robbers — will remain the same. Your thoughts?
Anne Marie Schubert: I do not know if that is accurate. You have to be a Supermax type of violent felon to be exempted from the statute. If you commit child abuse on a child and you did it with drugs and you are released and are found to possess drugs again, you have to be a huge offender to be exempted from Prop 47. Most of the public believes these cases will not be included as exemptions. Some of the other provisions of the statute that are shocking are that if you steal a handgun — which is a straight felony in California right now — under this law, if it costs less than $950, it will be a misdemeanor. People steal guns to commit violent crimes.
How do you respond to those who say similar measures have worked in other states?
Who said that? I can tell you, in California, what works is treatment and drug courts. That is all premised on the threat of a felony, which incentivizes treatment. If the consequences are small, there is not a lot of incentive to complete that program. The drug courts will go away if this measure passes.
‘Prop 47 will significantly and substantially reduce penalties for individuals who possess drugs, commit thefts and date rapes, regardless of what their record is.’
Anne Marie Schubert
district attorney–elect, Sacramento County
What kind of precedent is there for the likes of Prop 47?
Marc Mauer: Even in California in 2012, voters approved a ballot measure on the state’s three-strikes laws from 1994 that the third strike had to be a violent felony. The original law resulted in incarceration of substantial numbers of people for life for relatively minor property crimes. Thousands of people had their sentences adjusted to take that into account. For the initial group of people released since then, the recidivism rates are much lower than the typical California prisoner. We have seen this take place with no adverse effects on public safety.
Prop 47 is polling well. You have been watching this issue for years. Why has the public shifted?
There are several reasons. Crime rates have been declining for the last 15 years or so, regardless of why. People have a sense of greater safety. People are more concerned with economic policy and employment. There is also an increased understanding about the need to make choices in incarceration. There is a move toward drug and mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration. There is an increasingly bipartisan approach for reform. Prop 47 has support from traditional liberal groups but also Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich.
‘There is a move toward drug and mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration. There is an increasingly bipartisan approach for reform. Prop 47 has support from traditional liberal groups but also Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich.’
executive director, the Sentencing Project