Proposition 47 is a California law that passed in 2014. It would become the largest record-changing effort in the United States that ended the barriers to workplace entry, home ownership, for those with a felony conviction in the state. Up to 1 million people could be eligible to turn their non-violent old felony into a misdemeanor, clearing their record so that they can become more economically stable for themselves and their family.
Under the definitions of Prop 47, there are several previous felonies that are now given the classification of a misdemeanor. If you have one of the following on your record as an older felony, then you can apply to have it reduced.
- Simple drug possession.
- Shoplifting or petty theft under $950.
- Forgery or writing bad checks under $950.
- Receipt of stolen property under $950.
You must submit a Prop 47 petition to your local courthouse to request a change to your older criminal records. If approved, then you no longer face the lifetime barriers of a felony conviction. It can also reduce the risks of immigration consequences to your status.
There are some additional pros and cons of Prop 47 to consider as well.
List of the Pros of Prop 47
1. It reduces the impact of the prison culture in California.
The state of California might be criticized by conservatives for its liberal-leaning economic policies, but it has also been one of the harshest criminal justice structures in the United States for over 20 years. The three-strikes law provides a mandatory 25-year to life prison sentence for anyone convicted of a third felony, even if it is for a minor offense. When legislators pushed this law through, it seemed like it would be a crime deterrent. What it really caused was an over-population of the prison system and a strain on the financial resources of the state. Prop 47 seeks to fix that problem.
2. it creates rehabilitation opportunities for individuals.
The three-strike law in California turned out to be a good measure for offenders who were repetitively violent. What this legislation did not provide is an opportunity for felons with a mental illness or substance abuse issues to find the help they need. Once that third felony conviction occurred, then they were going to jail for potentially the rest of their life. The odds of receiving the help they needed were slim-to-none before Prop 47 passed in 2014. Now there are more funds available to help people in need because of the bipartisan support this idea generated.
3. Individuals incarcerated on old felonies could ask for resentencing.
One of the primary criticisms of Prop 47 is that it would provide convicted prisoners with an opportunity to get out of jail. Anyone who is incarcerated for an older felony that falls under this legislation does have the right to ask to be released or resentenced under the law. That doesn’t mean there is an automatic change in their status. Some sentences are upheld under this statute if they weren’t unreasonable wit the third strike. There is also a deadline to make this request. All petitions or applications must be submitted through an attorney or at the local courthouse by 2020 to qualify.
4. There was no increase in violent crime after the passage of Prop 47.
Although California did see a small increase in violent crime incidents between 2014-2016, the results were due in large part because of unrelated changes that occurred in how those incidents were reported. The trend of actual incidents and the impact of violence in each community was left unchanged by this legislation. Despite the small changes, the rate of crime in the state is comparable to the low rates observed in the 1960s – even with a dramatic reduction to the number of incarcerations occurring because of this legislation.
5. Prop 47 may have lowered the recidivism rate in California.
Proposition 47 helped to lower the recidivism rates in California for people involved in these non-violent, low-risk activities. Individuals released after serving a sentence for a Prop 47 offense had a two-year arrest rate of 70.8%. That figure is 1.8% points lower than what it was for individuals who received their release before the reforms occurred. The two-year re-conviction rate of 46% is also 3.1 percentage points lower than what it was before voters approved this legislation.
6. It reduced prison population levels in the state almost immediately.
The county jails and state prisons in California saw reduced population numbers after Prop 47 became law. It only took 12 months after the passage of this reform to release about 8,100 inmates, or 6% of the prison population, because they had qualifying convictions for crimes under this law. Although not all of the reduction is attributed to this law, the changes to released and admissions for certain crimes helped to manage the cost of the system while allowing people to seek new opportunities for themselves without the impact of prison time.
7. The State of California is saving millions of dollars each year.
Although the goal of Prop 47 was to rehabilitate drug offenders in substantial ways, the reduced prison population created a large financial benefit. About $100 million is saved each year, which means more money goes into education and treatment programs. It may not always be enough to cover the extensive treatment that some people might need to get back on their feet, but it is a step in the right direction. There is no way to know from a long-term perspective if the impact of this law will have a net positive effect on addiction, possession, and non-violent theft crimes in the state.
8. Prop 47 helps local school districts too.
The fund that started in 2016 from the criminal justice savings that occurred through Prop 47 helps schools too. The grants that come from the program are intended to help reduce truancy rates and dropouts that happen in high school. When combined with the drug abuse treatment benefits, mental health funding, and lower prison population, each community has more resources that can fight crime proactively instead of always being in a reactive position. There are still high recidivism rates (above 70%), but this issue could continue to see reductions in the future as the long-term consequences of this legislation make themselves known.
9. It follows the same structure that has been successful in other states.
There are 13 states in the U.S. that treat simple drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of as a felony. Several have thresholds for property crime that are significantly higher than what Prop 47 created at the $950 level. Moving more toward supervised probation for non-violent offenders instead of sticking them behind bars can them to stay integrated in society. They can make a difference in their communities and support their families instead of having taxpayers supporting them with a stay in prison or a county jail.
List of the Cons of Prop 47
1. It could create a get-out-of-jail free card for some violent offenders.
The problem with Prop 47 is that it released about 10,000 prisoners from California jails by changing the definition of their conviction. Although the goal is to release non-violent offenders caught up in the state’s three-strike law, people still chose to become criminals. You don’t accidentally write fraudulent checks or shoplift multiple items from the store, after all. Instead of following through on the promised consequences, some people get to live their life again without the same threat of consequences. That puts more safety risks on the street for law enforcement officials to manage.
2. Prop 47 encouraged more small-scale larceny crimes.
Because Prop 47 declassified certain low-value crimes as felonies, this legislation seemed to have an impact on property crime after its passage in 2014. Although the reform package didn’t impact auto thefts or burglaries, there was a 9% rise in larceny thefts. That means there were about 135 more incidents per 100,000 people compared to other states because of this new law. The crime data from California shows that about 75% of this increase was due to thefts that occurred from motor vehicles.
Property crime increased in 90% of the California’s largest cities after passage of Prop 47. Los Angeles County saw an 8% increase in the first 12 months after the law’s passage.
3. It changes the approach of law enforcement and those who commit crimes.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 on an individual named Semisi Sina. At the age of 30, he is stealing bicycles from his neighborhood in Hacienda Heights. His skipping out on drug treatment sessions became frequent. Keeping up with his meth habit required money to come from somewhere. Sina would eventually have 16 arrests on his record, making him one of the most contacted repeat offenders for drug use and theft. Because of Prop 47, it is easier for him to commit crimes because law enforcement approaches change. Citations are up and jail bookings are down with this law, and Sina is one of the criminals that gets to take advantage of this shift in enforcement.
4. Prop 47 provides very little help to the low-level offender.
The goal of Prop 47 is to help offenders and convicted prisoners who have non-violent records to get another chance at life. By removing the felony barriers that keep them from getting jobs or a decent place to live, the goal is to reintegrate them back into society. The reality of this legislation is that for the low-level offender, there is almost nothing that it can do. The person with no history of violence or committing a dangerous or violent crime like stealing a handgun will not see any benefits. The laws of the state prevented sending this type of person to a state prison in the first place.
5. It makes it impossible to stop some criminals from legally possessing a firearm.
Prop 47 also makes it impossible for law enforcement at the state or national level to stop a criminal from legally possessing a gun. This disadvantage is due to the change from a felony to a misdemeanor that occurs. Street crimes like gun theft, daytime burglary, or purse snatching to a lower level crime ensures that the individuals involved can continue owning weapons and being a threat to their community.
6. There is little incentive for law enforcement to chase down low-level criminals.
When low-level crimes occur in California, Prop 47 makes it so that law enforcement must prioritize high-level crime first. What is the point of tracking down someone who will receive a misdemeanor complaint and then be back out on the street in less than an hour. That means simple property crimes fall onto building and business owners to manage.
“Every bicycle in our building has been stolen,” Karen Burns, president of a San Francisco condominium association, told the National Review in 2018. “I’ve caught so many people stealing packages. They don’t care. They know nothing will happen to them. It’s crazy – it’s horrible.”
7. The downstream impact on drug use and addiction adversely impacts communities.
The purpose of Prop 47 may be kind since its generally cruel to punish someone with an addiction. It is also practical, since sending someone to prison makes it more of a challenge to integrate into society in the future. The unintended downstream impact of the legislation is that shooting up drugs in public is now commonplace, especially in San Francisco. Incidents occur at supermarkets, on the steps of City Hall, and even in playgrounds. One of the reasons why the crimes are down in the statistics is because people have stopped reporting them. They feel like nothing will happen, and Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, says that they are right.
“More, not fewer, of these crimes are being committed, but people aren’t reporting them. In most cases, they have to do it online, and they end up not doing it at all.”
A criminal justice system must be willing to continue evolving if it will adequately serve its community. There are times when sentences must become harsher due to the changing behaviors of those who choose to commit such acts. We must also acknowledge the circumstances that require us to lessen the penalties for some laws when the consequences are ineffective. The pros and cons of Prop 47 show that the latter action can still be an effective way to govern safely.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.