On November 4th, 2014 California’s registered voters are going to get the chance to vote on a referendum that can completely change the lives of thousands of its population currently residing in state prisons.
Proposition 47 is legislation up for a vote that would change the status of certain crimes that are now considered a felony into misdemeanors, exempting their inclusion from the three-strike law. If passed, this new law could mean that those already in prison for these crimes will have their sentences changed to reflect the new law.
WHICH FELONIES ARE UNDER SCRUTINY?
The crimes which are being re-evaluated are mainly property crimes, such as theft and forgery, where damages value less than $950. Also included will be drug possession charges where the drug was solely for personal use. The most controversial of these changes, and the ones that law enforcement officials are most concerned about, involve guns and date rape drugs.
The passage of this law will mean that it will no longer be a felony to steal a firearm that is worth less than $950, nor will it be a felony to be in possession of known date rape drugs. While police across the state are heavily opposed to this, advocates for proposition 47 points out that being in possession of a stolen firearm will still allow for other felony charges to be applied to each defendant. As for the illegal possession of a date rape drug, if they are utilized in a sexual assault then the individual will be charged accordingly.
WHY THE CHANGES?
California has been criticized for years for its overpopulated prison system. A criticism which they tried to correct by allowing more felons to serve their sentences in county jails. Two years ago voters also allowed for a slight change in the three strike law by voting to lessen the sentences of criminals whose third crime was a minor one.
California’s three-strike law is the harshest sentencing program in all of the United States. Adopted over two decades ago, this legislation gives mandatory 25 years to life sentences to criminals who have been convicted of three felonies, even if they are minor offenses. While a seemingly ideal deterrent to crime, the end result has been an overpopulated prison system that is viewed as inhumane and a strain on the state's already precarious economy.
THE ADVOCATES FOR PROPOSITION 47
There are a number of individuals and groups pushing hard for this referendum, and raising millions of dollars to campaign for its passage in the Golden State. The main sponsor and leading funder financially is San Francisco district attorney George Gascon, who is on the opposite side of the fence from most of his peers in law enforcement. His sentiments are that this incarceration craze that California has been on has not worked, and is in many ways counter-productive.
This is the same feeling that most of the supporters for proposition 47 have. While the three strike law is a good measure for repeat violent offenders, it does not fix the problem for felons who are mentally ill or have substance abuse addictions.
$4 million has been raised in support of the referendum so far, and a good portion of that money has been used just to get the change in legislation put on the upcoming ballot. Donations have come in from supporters all around the country, including the chief executive of Netflix and the former Facebook president. The largest single donation, $1.255, million is from conservative businessman B. Wayne Hughes Jr. The Christian philanthropist urges California citizens to vote yes on November 4th not only to help those who are serving unjust sentences but also to cut back on the $62,000 a year it costs to keep them locked up.
Those opposed to the proposed changes are mainly in law enforcement, concerned about those felons who have violent histories. San Diego police Chief Shelley Zimmerman is one of the loudest opponents who view propositions 47 as a get out of jail free card for the estimated 10,000 California prisoners who have the opportunity to be released if the bill passes.
The opposition has only managed to raise $300,000 so far, which will likely be used towards campaigning to have the bill rejected. Most of this money has come from a law enforcement agent’s association.
THE FINANCIAL SIDE
The change in the three strike law will have a dramatic effect not only on the economy of California but also on its individual counties. Experts predict that the state is going to save hundreds of millions of dollars annually, as will each county. This money is expected to go towards treatment programs for the mentally ill and for those with drug addictions.
There are also plans in place for counseling services for potential high school dropouts and victims of domestic violence and other similar crimes. Authorities are cautiously optimistic that these types of programs can help break the cycle and further move towards maintaining a lower prison population.
Both sides of the issue have their points to argue, but in the end, it will be up to the California voters to decide the fate of those felons who are paying a harsh price for lesser offenses. If all goes the way that the supporters hope it will, these non-violent felons could get the help that they need instead of spending an excessive amount of time behind bars.