Proposition 57 passed in California overwhelmingly with 64% of the total vote. The goal of this legislation is to enhance public safety by emphasizing rehabilitation within the state’s criminal justice system. It also prevents federal courts from releasing inmates to local communities.
Prop 57 encourages inmates to take responsibility for their own rehabilitation by providing them with credit-earning opportunities. This incentivizes the process by rewarding sustained good behavior, offering in-prison programs for vocational development, and activities participation.
This legislation also moves up the consideration for parole when non-violent offenders serv e their primary term for offenses and demonstrated that a release to the community would not be a significant risk. The goal of these changes was to improve inmate behavior and provide a safer prison environment for staff and prisoners. Then inmates could leave prison with useful tools and skills that can help them to become productive members of society.
Has Proposition 57 developed the expected results since its passage in 2016? Here are some of the pros and cons of this idea that we can see developing more than three years later.
List of the Pros of Prop 57
1. It works to reduce recidivism rates for inmates.
Proposition 57 gives prisoners more incentives to behave when they are behind bars. Although some people see this benefit as “going easy” on someone who broke the law, rehabilitation has always proven to be more effective than direct punishment for actions. The individuals who broke the law already pushed through the deterrent effect of legislation, so continuing to consequence them for their choices does not lead to a change in recidivism rates.
Eric Schweitzer, an attorney interviewed by ABC 30 about Prop 57, says that enrolling in prison programs for a better chance at parole can have positive outcomes. “We know that education in a correctional environment will drastically reduce recidivism,” he said.
2. It can work to reduce prison populations over time.
Proposition 57 can help to address the critical overcrowding issues that are happening in California prisons right now. The goal of this legislation is to keep the dangerous felons behind bars while encouraging non-violent offenders to embrace rehabilitation so that they can re-enter society. Since the current sentencing system is inefficient and expensive, there could be tens of millions of dollars in savings over the next decade as all of the programs authorized by this legislation make their way through the criminal justice system.
In 2011, the federal court system ordered the state to reduce their prison population to 137.5% of capacity or face the mandatory release of prisoners.
3. It changes how the juvenile justice system treats offenders of adult crimes.
Youths under the age of 18 who are accused of committing a crime are usually prosecuted in juvenile court. The judges in this situation will then determine the placement and treatment for the child with the goal of rehabilitating them before they become an adult. When teens between the ages of 14-18 are accused of a violent felony like murder or specific sexually-related offenses, then they can be tried in adult court at the discretion of the prosecutor before Prop 57.
This legislation changes the state law to require youths to have a hearing with a juvenile court judge to determine whether they should be transferred to adult court. That means the judge now makes the decision instead of the prosecutor.
4. There is now a greater proportion of violent offenders in state prisons.
Many of the reforms that have passed in California since 2009, including Proposition 57, have directed many offenders from state to county supervision. This process has cut the number of inmates sent to prison for specific drug or property crimes. There are also reduced sentencing guidelines in place that cut down the time that convicted individuals must spend behind bars with some non-violent crimes.
The majority of offenders in state prison are now serving terms for serious, violent, or sex-related offenses or have completed a term for one. Since 2008, the proportion of prisoners convicted of violent acts rose from 71% to 91% in the state prison population, with 1 in 4 people serving a life sentence.
5. The prison population is continuing to age in California after Prop 57.
Proposition 57 is causing the prison population in California to continue getting older, which means more people are being released through this process while those who deserve to stay behind bars are doing so. The share of prisoners above the age of 50 went from 4% to 23%, while those under the age of 25 fell from 20% to 11%. That means the average age of an inmate in the system today is about 40.
Although this benefit does come with some future challenges to consider, such as how to provide healthcare to this population, it also means that more young people are staying out of prison, not returning, or taking advantage of the release opportunities.
6. It eliminates the risk of a court-ordered release of prisoners without structure.
If the ongoing population reduction benefits with Prop 57 and other legislative efforts did not work for the California criminal justice system, then the state risked a court-ordered release of prisoners with potentially violent tendencies because of the conditions in jails and prisons. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money would be wasted in that scenario and the general public would be less safe.
The structure of Prop 57 eliminates that risk because it provides a common-sense, long-term solution that encourages rehabilitation while saving money and keep those who need to stay in prison there.
List of the Cons of Prop 57
1. California law does not specify which crimes are considered violent.
Prop 57 says that is applies to only non-violent criminals, but it does not specify which crimes it actually considered to be violent. Under the current state law, there are just 23 felonies which receive a violence classification, including some (but not all) forms of rape, robbery, and murder. Drugging someone and then having sex with that person without their consent does not qualify as a violent act. That would mean this legislation could provide for an early release for that individual despite their potential harm to the community.
“I think the thing that makes my blood boil is it’s a lie,” said District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp to a group of California police chiefs and reported on by ABC 30. “The title of the initiative is a lie. They are not nonviolent people.”
2. African-Americans are still over-represented in the population.
About 30% of the male prisoners who are housed in state prisons in California are African-Americans, while only 6% of the residents of the state are part of this racial minority. The incarceration rate in CA for African-American men is 4,180 per 100,000 people, but white men are imprisoned at a rate of only 420 per 100,000 people. Even Latino men are incarcerated at twice the rate of whites.
Proposition 57 may reduce the number of non-violent offenders that taxpayers are supporting in prisons and jails, but it is not changing the socioeconomic factors that lead more minorities to serve time behind bars when compared to people from Caucasian descent.
3. The cost benefits from Prop 57 are offset by more parole hearings.
Prop 57 amends the state constitution in California to allow for parole consideration for anyone convicted of a non-violent felony and has served their minimum sentence. They must also pass a screening for public security. Many sentences offered in the state are based on a range, such as 25 years-to-life, so this legislation only applies once that first number is reached in the guideline.
That means there are more parole hearings occurring in the state each year, which works to offset the cost savings that the $10 billion corrections budget experiences each year. Some counties are seeing an increase in expenses because of the requirements for housing and transportation as well.
4. It increases the cost of probation supervision.
If you have more people qualifying for early release because of their good behavior, then there is a significant strain placed on the probation system. California is seeing a spike in these costs as more inmates qualify for this option in the criminal justice system, creating a shortage in qualified officers in some regions. Despite the screening information that indicates low-risk factors, the lack of supervision that could sometimes occur may encourage higher levels of recidivism in some situations.
The net county costs increased by several million dollars per year because each local government is now responsible for paying a portion of the housing costs in state juvenile facilities in addition to the added probation supervision requirements that are in place.
5. It gives even more rights to inmates that some people don’t receive on the outside.
Although there are clear benefits to consider with Prop 57, it is also problematic for some households because some low-risk inmates receive more access to educational and vocational resources than low-income families without a criminal record. Giving prisoners more benefits than the general population weakens the anti-crime laws which are on the books, giving more opportunities to those who break the law instead of following them.
It may lower recidivism rates, but there is a real possibility that some individuals might choose to break the law and get caught on purpose so they can access these resources.
6. It disregards the sentences imposed by a judge.
Judges impose a specific sentence based on the law and what they observe during a trial. It is based on the actions of the defendant, whether they are found guilty by a jury or plead to the charges. Although the minimum sentencing range must be met to qualify for parole, it disregards the maximum that is in place. This process undercuts the role of the judge in protecting society, which can impact the respect they receive from the general population and the criminal justice system.
7. It overturns certain aspects of previous voter-approved laws.
Proposition 57 overturns aspects of some of the older voter-approved laws which were originally passed as a way to make the public safer. Marsy’s Law, the Victims’ Bill of Rights, and other laws are not as effective today as they were in the past because of this legislation. When you add this disadvantage to the fact that those convicted of dangerous (but not violent) offenses could receive an early release, it is understandable to see when there is ongoing opposition to the concepts offered by this law.
8. It is an effort that some in law enforcement do not support.
One of the primary opponents of Proposition 57 is the Stop Early Release of Violent Criminals coalition, which is comprised of numerous district attorneys across the state. County sheriffs, police officer associations, and several political officials are also part of the opposition group. Those who were for it include the probation officers’ association in California, the Democratic party, and the State Law Enforcement Association.
This split in the law enforcement community creates a divide that criminals could use to exploit the system in the future. Even though judges will have an opportunity to thoroughly review cases and the circumstances of a crime, there may be better ways to reduce prison population numbers rather than encourage a mass release just because there is a federal order in place. You could build more prisons with additional bed space, for example, to reduce the percentage as well.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Prop 57
Proposition 57 was a solution that helped California start to right their ship when addressing the needs of their criminal justice system. Instead of placing the decision to prosecute juveniles in the hands of the district attorney, a judge gets to determine based on legal arguments as to whether or not trying someone under the age of 18 as an adult is beneficial to the system.
Then, by offering parole to low-risk inmates who could contribute to society, Prop 57 encourages rehabilitation and more productivity while reducing the number of prisoners that taxpayers must maintain.
The pros and cons of Prop 57 do struggle to find success with its crime classification definitions, but it is starting to reduce the ongoing costs of prisoner upkeep while encouraging a lower rate of recidivism. There are extra costs to pay for probation supervision, but it may also reduce the need for this service over time as low-risk individuals transition out of the system for good.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.