.The Push to Imprison California’s Low-Level Offenders

Law enforcement officials say Prop 47 — which reduced some minor offenses from felonies to misdemeanors — has led to a spike in crime. But they've got no credible evidence to back their claims.

For years, Jill Jenkins struggled with drug addiction and repeatedly got caught committing minor offenses, such as petty theft. The 48-year-old Oakland woman would try to move her life forward and get clean, but her criminal record made it nearly impossible to find employment, she said. “Once I got the rejection, it gave me a mental setback, and I would start using and committing petty crimes again,” she said. “That’s how I got caught up in this cycle.” Eventually, she was arrested for stealing a sandwich — an offense that resulted in a felony conviction due to her past theft cases.

Today, however, Jenkins no longer has this felony on her record. Earlier this year, a judge agreed to reduce her conviction to a misdemeanor, which meant she was no longer on supervised probation and had a clean slate. She earned this reduction under Proposition 47, a 2014 statewide ballot measure that reclassified certain minor, nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors with the goal of creating fairer sentencing practices and reducing jail and prison populations. Jenkins is now a law clerk at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office and has become a vocal advocate for Prop 47 with a story that clearly demonstrates how less harsh punishments can enable people convicted of low-level offenses to get back on track.

Public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates say Jenkins is one of hundreds of thousands of people now benefiting from Prop 47 across California. But in recent months, the reform measure has faced significant backlash from police departments, prosecutors, and media commentators who argue that Prop 47 has led to a spike in crime. In news reports throughout the state, law enforcement officials and some mainstream journalists are casting doubts on Prop 47, claiming that cities and counties are facing crime upticks because the measure allegedly released dangerous inmates from jails and prisons and that milder punishments make it easier for offenders to get away with crimes or even embolden them to commit offenses.

But the many articles that have advocated this viewpoint have failed to include any credible evidence or data linking the ballot measure to crime trends, according to experts and advocates who argue that it’s too soon to judge Prop 47. Supporters of the measure further worry that this kind of fear-mongering could pose obstacles for future progressive initiatives aimed at reducing incarceration and tough-on-crime sentencing — or could lay the groundwork for efforts to repeal the reforms that California has already implemented.

“I think there is a concerted effort in conservative counties to make sure Proposition 47 fails. … They want to send more people back to prison,” said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, in an interview last week. The pushback is troubling, he added, given that the state is finally recognizing that jails and prisons have failed to rehabilitate low-level offenders or reduce recidivism rates. “I don’t have clients who say, ‘I’m not going to commit a petty theft because I’m worried about prison.’ In the moment that they commit a petty theft, they are hungry. They are worried about food, about trying to provide for their family. Prison isn’t a deterrent.”

Woods noted that he has not heard any concerns about the effects of Prop 47 from Alameda County law enforcement officials, although District Attorney Nancy O’Malley vocally opposed the measure last year, arguing that it would jeopardize public safety. In one op-ed, she described the initiative as a “frightening fraud with irrevocable and far-reaching repercussions.” Spokespeople for O’Malley and the Oakland Police Department declined to comment on Prop 47 for this report. In Oakland, the number of robberies and burglaries have remained fairly consistent from 2014 to 2015 so far — and drug-related offenses have dropped 31 percent, according to OPD data.

Heavy-handed denunciations of Prop 47 are prominent in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but have cropped up in smaller jurisdictions as well. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently argued that Prop 47 may have played a role in an 11 percent increase in property crimes this year, according to the Los Angeles Times. And the Los Angeles County Sheriff, citing a 7 percent increase in property crimes in 2015, recently told the Associated Press that crime has spiked in the county since the threat of a felony is no longer in place for some offenses.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders also recently wrote about an increase in crime in San Francisco in 2015 — theft from cars is up 47 percent, robberies are up 23 percent, and aggravated assaults are up 2 percent. She suggested that Prop 47 may deserve some of the blame due to the release of inmates and because the ballot measure has led cops and prosecutors to be less aggressive in arresting and punishing offenders. Meanwhile, police officials in Ventura, Fresno, and Yolo counties have all contended that although Prop 47 only impacted nonviolent offenses, the initiative has resulted in an increase in violent crimes because low-level offenders are now out on the streets allegedly committing worse offenses.

There are many reasons why the claims that Prop 47 has caused crime upticks are flawed, according to criminologists and the measure’s defenders. For starters, critics are overstating the reach of the initiative, and are referencing crime trends that have nothing to do with Prop 47, said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and one of the co-authors of the measure. Prop 47, which was approved by 60 percent of California voters in November, allows individuals to apply for reductions from felonies to misdemeanors in cases of simple drug possession; petty theft and shoplifting under $950; forgery and writing a bad check under $950; and receipt of stolen property under $950. This reclassification is available for people currently serving time and for those with a past felony on their records. The initiative further stipulated that the financial savings in prison costs would go toward mental health and drug treatment programs, programs for at-risk K-12 students, and recovery services for crime victims.

According to data collected by Californians for Safety and Justice, a pro-Prop 47 group, as of September, the state has released 4,000 people from prison under the ballot measure while county jails have released roughly 10,000 inmates. As of May, more than 160,000 people have petitioned the courts to have felonies reclassified under Prop 47. In Alameda County, roughly 5,000 people currently on probation are eligible to have felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors under the initiative, according to John Jones, an organizer at the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights who has led Prop 47 outreach work.

Jones argued that if thousands of people were no longer on probation, it would make it easier for them to find employment — and would save the county a lot of money. “The purpose is not only simply to allow people to work,” he said, “but to make sure the funding goes to programs and services that are evidence-based and cost-effective.”

Barry Krisberg, UC Berkeley criminologist, further argued that given Prop 47’s very recent implementation, police departments simply don’t have enough data to draw meaningful conclusions about how the policy correlates to crime patterns. Further, he said there’s no compelling evidence that these jurisdictions or California as a whole are actually experiencing a notable crime uptick in the first place. “You can cherry-pick and create a crime wave,” he said.

Additionally, past research suggests that a reform measure such as Prop 47 is not likely to result in an increase in crime. State and local efforts to decriminalize minor drug offenses, such as marijuana possession, for example, have not resulted in crime upticks. Krisberg said there also have been no meaningful crime increases associated with Governor Jerry Brown’s “Public Safety Realignment” initiative, which shifted certain low-level, nonviolent offenders out of state prisons and into the custody of counties with the goal of reducing the prison population. A recent study from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice concluded that since the implementation of realignment in 2011, statewide violent crime and property crime has generally decreased — following the downward crime trend of the past twenty years.

Advocates argued that it’s also premature to judge Prop 47 given that its long-term positive impact remains to be seen. That’s because the huge financial savings from the reform have not yet gone into critical programs and services. “Proposition 47 provides a real opportunity to open up pathways of productivity and stability for hundreds of thousands of people,” Anderson said.


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