COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Prop. 47 looks like a well-intentioned blunder

The more time goes by since last fall’s passage of the high-minded Proposition 47, the more it begins to look like a well-intentioned mistake.

This was the ballot measure that turned some “minor” felonies into misdemeanor crimes, thus easing the crowding in state prisons and many county jails. It has unquestionably helped some ex-felons rebuild their lives.

But as crime statistics for the first half of this year pour in from around the state, this measure looks worse and worse, on balance. The numbers are bearing out warnings Proposition 47 opponents made in their official ballot argument against the initiative before it passed by a whopping 60-40 percent margin.

“Proposition 47 is a dangerous … package of ill-conceived policies wrapped in a poorly drafted initiative which will endanger all Californians,” said opponents, led by Citrus Heights Police Chief Christopher Boyd, president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

Here’s a bit of what’s happened since passage: In San Francisco, car burglaries are up 47 percent this year over 2014, while car thefts have risen 17 percent and robberies rose by 23 percent. In Los Angeles, overall crime is up 12.7 percent this year and violent crime rose almost 21 percent. That’s after 12 straight years of crime decreases in the state’s largest city.

Some saw Proposition 47 as a mere expansion on Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison “realignment” program, designed to reduce prison populations at the demand of federal judges up to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Convicts were already seeing sentences reduced or being shifted from tougher state prisons to county jails. Many lesser offenders who might previously have gotten at least some jail time were going free on probation. Before Proposition 47, this had cut the prison population by almost one-fifth, while not causing crime rate increases in most places.

But the initiative does much more than mere realignment, switching many crimes from the felony category to misdemeanors. This includes most drug possession arrests, petty thefts, forged checks and receiving stolen property, with property crimes having to exceed $950 to be a felony.

One result: Myriad drug addicts have adjusted their practices, trying to hold their take from “minor” crimes under that amount. Because of crowding in local jails, it’s common for misdemeanor offenders to be turned loose soon after their convictions.

Proposition 47 supporters also touted the fact their measure allows all those crimes to be treated as felonies if the accused has previous convictions for rape, murder or child molestation or is a registered sex offender.

Not enough, said the opponents, noting that persons with prior convictions for armed robbery, carjacking, child abuse, assault with a deadly weapon and other serious crimes would still be allowed misdemeanor status for new non-violent offenses.

They pointed out that thousands of convicts who stood to be released because their crimes would be converted into misdemeanors have prior records of violent crimes not listed among the most dangerous.

At the same time, many convict firefighters (about 40 percent of crews battling major fires in California are convicts) have been released because of reductions in the category of their crimes.

Prison-provided fire crews nevertheless retained the same manpower as last year during the early blazes of this wildfire season. No one yet knows if in-prison recruiting of some new firefighters will produce the same quality of work (several fires this summer spread far wider than officials expected) or whether more convicts on wild-land crews will now try to escape.

Proposition 47 also earmarked much of the prison money it saves for mental health and drug treatment programs, aiming to cushion the effects of making most drug possessions no more than minor offenses.

But enrollment in drug treatment programs has dropped, probably a sign that many addicts no longer feel pressured to kick their habits. They know they’ll never do significant time either for using or for most crimes that support their addictions.

So it’s become quite clear the opponents made good points. On balance, Proposition 47 is turning out to be bad policy. Now it’s time for legislators to do what they can to fix the flawed measure. A start would be increasing the list of serious prior offenses than can turn the new “minor” crimes back into felonies.


Elias is the author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," available in a softcover fourth edition.

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6 UserComments
diana lejins 12:00am September 9, 2015

This situation is far more complicated.....Sadly, most of the Proposition 47 people should not have been in prison in the first place. Young people who are imprisoned for even the most miniscule drug offenses now have a record, cannot get a student loan, cannot get a job, have just taken Criminality 101 while in jail--what have we created?! The problem needs to be treated as a whole and that is not being done. We can start by ending the failed "war on drugs" and treat concerns as health issues.

Diana Lejins 12:00am September 6, 2015

With 25% of the world's incarcerated population and a whopping one-third of all women behind bars housed in the United State's prisons, something had to give. Sadly, a vast majority of those citizens have been convicted of charges relating to drugs. Has the "war on drugs" reduced usage? We hypocritically boast of having a free nation, yet we are one of the world's most repressive. Young people are often caught up in the system after "trying" some drug and sent to jail. When they are released, they cannot get a student loan or a job. And, they have been exposed to Criminality 101 by hardened criminals. What have we just created? Do we feel any safer? One of the best examples of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Perhaps we need to stop this fruitless "war on drugs", stop putting people in prison for a plant, stop destroying peoples' lives and their families, and put the $$$ saved into education and other programs for our young people.

Shawna Temple 12:00am September 5, 2015

Hope they repeal it? Worlds going in the toilet. Even letting convicts vote. No way.

Richard Riehl 12:00am September 4, 2015

Without listing your sources for crime statistics, your argument is built on reader ignorance. And giving percentage increases of cherry-picked crimes, without comparative numbers of all crime, over time, is irresponsible. For example, if incidences of a given crime has been dropping for the last 12 years straight in L.A., any increase, for any reason whatsoever, would reflect a greater rise in the percentage. Unless you missed that in math class, you must know smaller numbers drive greater percentage changes. Worst of all, to generalize Prop 47 is the only reason for the increase is simply silly.

VJM 12:00am August 25, 2015

I agree with your opinion in your article. What you see, now that the measure passed, is several people using the quote,"overwhelming supported by voters" when referring to the measure. This is not accurate. Voters overwhelmingly support the name of the measure, "Safe Schools Act". If it was titled properly, "Felony Reduction Act" I doubt the measure would have passed. So if you voted for this measure, and get your identity stolen or you get your property stolen, or are assaulted by someone on meth, remember that the measure says our schools and neighbors are safe when we let them off the hook. Remember how you were fooled voters!! Read the entire measure, not just the title when you vote!!!

canteenkenny 12:00am August 25, 2015

You nailed a primary issue here VJM. We need more informed voters.