California voters easily approved Proposition 47, which reduces certain nonserious and nonviolent property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The measure also allows certain offenders who have been previously convicted of such crimes to apply for reduced sentences.
In general, offenders convicted of misdemeanor crimes are punished less severely than felony offenders. The anticipated long-term result would lessen prison overcrowding.
Proponents argued that, if enacted, the population of inmates in the state prison system and county jails would be reduced, thus saving money and ensuring capacity for violent and serious offenders.
Opponents worried that 10,000 existing inmates might be granted release based on the proposed changes. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice estimated that about 40,000 fewer individuals would be incarcerated as a result.
Despite these stories, caution and carefulness, not superficial reactions, come from Riverside County officials. “The impact(s) of Proposition 47 to the department and our communities are not yet known, as it is much too early to speculate,” said Sheriff Stan Sniff.
Immediately following the election results, law enforcement officials and the media began reporting on the potential effects of implementing Prop 47. For example, a Los Angeles Times article suggested that in the future there might be insufficient inmates to staff the inmate firefighting crews. The Riverside County Bautista crew is composed of inmates and is deployed for many of the major fires in the county.
However, state and local firefighting officials say it is much too early to describe the consequences of Prop 47.
At the state level, officials from Cal Fire and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are still evaluating potential effects. They have not yet met, according to Daniel Berlant, chief of public information for Cal Fire.
A meeting is scheduled for this week “… to discuss the expected impact to the inmate population used in our program. Both departments agree the program is critical to our firefighting mission, but at this time we don't know what, if any, impact there will be,” Berlant wrote in an email to the Town Crier.
Riverside County Battalion Chief Tim Chavez also said it was much too early to assess the effect of Prop 47. “A lot of unknowns right now,” he said.
The law is very specific about how it applies to current inmates; therefore, officials do not know how many may apply for release. “It may be a small segment of the inmate population,” Chavez said
He also emphasized that Assembly Bill 109, which implemented the state’s realignment of prison population to county jails, was supposed to affect the fire crews, but “… there’s been no appreciable effect,” Chavez stated.
If the prison population is reduced, according to the proposition’s language, the savings are to be transferred from the General Fund into a new state fund, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund. Monies in this fund would be divided among the following programs: reducing truancy and drop-outs among K-12 students in public schools; victim services grants; and mental health and drug abuse treatment services designed to help keep individuals out of prison and jail.
In the analysis of the proposition, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated annual savings would “eventually result in net state criminal justice system savings in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually… [and] …. net criminal justice system savings to the counties of several hundred million dollars annually, primarily from freeing jail capacity.”
What Proposition 47 changes
This measure reduces certain non-serious and nonviolent property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The measure limits these reduced penalties to offenders who have not committed certain severe crimes listed in the measure — including murder and certain sex and gun crimes.
Specifically, the measure reduces the penalties for the following crimes:
• Grand theft : Limits when theft of property of $950 or less can be charged as grand theft.
• Shoplifting: Shoplifting property worth $950 or less would always be a misdemeanor and could not be charged as burglary.
• Receiving stolen property: Receiving stolen property worth $950 or less would always be a misdemeanor.
• Writing bad checks: It would be a misdemeanor to write a bad check unless the check is worth more than $950 or the offender had previously committed three forgery-related crimes, in which case it would remain a wobbler* crime.
• Check forgery: Forging a check worth $950 or less would always be a misdemeanor, except that it would remain a wobbler* crime if the offender commits identity theft in connection with forging a check.
• Drug possession: These would always be misdemeanors. The measure would not change the penalty for possession of marijuana, which is currently either an infraction or a misdemeanor.
*Wobbler Sentencing: Under current law, some crimes — such as check forgery and being found in possession of stolen property — can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. These crimes are known as “wobblers.” Courts decide how to charge wobbler crimes based on the details of the crime and the criminal history of the offender.