Californians overwhelmingly chose less punitive criminal sentencing policies yesterday, with nearly 60 percent of voters approving Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that reclassifies certain nonviolent drug and property crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor. Persons convicted of these offenses will now face shorter stays in jail or community supervision.
This should be a familiar theme to observers of criminal justice policy in California. In 2012, nearly 70 percent of California voters approved Proposition 36—rejecting an earlier ballot initiative that allowed people convicted of nonviolent crimes to be sentenced to life in prison if they had two prior felony convictions.
A year earlier, the California legislature passed Public Safety Realignment, which shifted responsibility for the supervision and incarceration of people convicted of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sex crimes from the state to the counties.
Proposition 47 builds on these recent changes, reducing criminal penalties and reinvesting the savings in truancy prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victims’ services. Specifically, Proposition 47 raises the felony theft threshold for shoplifting, fraud, and other minor property offenses to $950 and reclassifies drug possession for personal use as a misdemeanor offense—capping the punishment at one year of incarceration in a local jail.
Even though most people convicted of these offenses are already managed locally because of Realignment, the California Legislative Analyst's Office anticipates that Proposition 47 may reduce the state prison population by "several thousand." These reductions will come from resentencing people currently in prison for one of the reclassified offenses and eliminating the possibility of a state prison sentence in the future. Shorter jail sentences should also alleviate incarceration at the local level.
This is all good news for California, which is struggling with one of the most crowded and costly prison systems in the country.
What’s needed next to further reduce the prison population?
If Californians are serious about reducing mass incarceration, which the vote margins for Propositions 47 and 36 suggest they are, they will need to reconsider the amount of time they send people to prison for more serious and violent offenses. Unfortunately, the state has just about reached the end of what it can accomplish in terms of reducing the state prison population by focusing on less serious drug and property offenses.
With prison releases declining (24 percent in 2013) because of Realignment, and people with long sentences “stacking up” in prison, California’s prison population increasingly consists of those with a current or prior conviction for a violent offense. As of June 2013, 70 percent of people in prison in California were serving a sentence for a violent offense. That translates to more than 94,000 people.
Of the remaining 40,000 people incarcerated for a nonviolent offense, only 14,000 had no prior convictions for a serious or violent offense. All told, the proportion of people in prison with no current or prior convictions for a serious or violent crime is relatively small and growing smaller.
Why does the state need to shift its focus to serious and violent offenses?
The capacity of California prisons is 86,000. The math just won't work. If Californians want to reduce the prison population to address chronic overcrowding, it is going to take more ambitious policies that reduce time served for serious and violent offenses.
Excessively long prison sentences and limited parole eligibility for these offenses put substantial limitations on the ability of any state to reduce its prison population. But with 30 percent of its prison population serving life sentences, the highest percentage in the country, this is particularly true in California.
In fact, policies that address violent offenses may be needed just to maintain the reductions achieved in recent years. Between 2010 and 2012, following the passage of Realignment, the California prison population declined by 29,500. However, those sharp declines leveled off in 2013 and the prison population increased again.
This does not necessarily mean that Realignment has reached its maximum impact, but it is a warning for those who might have thought that reforms addressing nonviolent offenses would be sufficient to deal with overcrowding. State and local correctional officials, law enforcement, and prosecutors are still adjusting to the new system and adapting their practices in ways that have the potential to reduce the impact of Realignment.
The citizens of California spoke clearly again in passing Proposition 47. The current sentencing and correctional system in California is costly and inefficient and voters would prefer their tax dollars to be spent on education and health care rather than incarceration.
But the options that have been on the table for them thus far are insufficient to meaningfully and sustainably reduce the prison population. The extent to which they will be able to reduce mass incarceration will require moving beyond nonviolent offenses to address sentencing enhancements and parole eligibility for people convicted of serious or violent offenses.