Calif. Prisons Have Released 2,700 Inmates Under Prop. 47

Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle

SACRAMENTO — California’s prisons have released 2,700 inmates after their felonies were reduced to misdemeanors under a ballot measure that voters approved in November, easing punishment for some property and drug crimes.

The mass inmate release over the past four months under Proposition 47 has resolved one of the state’s most ingrained problems: prison overcrowding, state prisons chief Jeffrey Beard told a Senate committee at a legislative hearing Thursday. Prop. 47 has allowed the state to comply with a court-ordered inmate reduction mandate a year ahead of schedule, Beard said.

But law enforcement leaders say they’ve already seen an increase in crime, and they believe it’s because of Prop. 47.

“The good news is we’ve addressed our jail overcrowding situation in California, which wasn’t acceptable to anybody,” said San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr in a phone interview. “The thing we are grappling with is the tremendous rise in property crime.”

Prop. 47 allows inmates serving sentences for crimes affected by the reduced penalties to apply to be resentenced and released early. Those crimes include shoplifting, grand theft and writing bad checks, among others. About 150 inmates a week are being released under the relaxed laws. Initially, 250 to 300 inmates a week were being let out.

4 freed early in S.F.

Four people sentenced in San Francisco had their felonies reduced and were released from prison under Prop. 47, according to the San Francisco district attorney’s office.

Prisoners released under Prop. 47 are required to be on parole for one year unless a judge decides otherwise.

California now has 112,500 inmates in its prisons, which is 1,300 inmates below the final cap the state was required to meet by February 2016.

Impact lauded

“We are happy to see the impact it’s having,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of the Oakland group Vote Safe, which sponsored Prop. 47. “The intent of the measure was to stop wasting precious resources on incarcerating people in state prisons for low-level, nonviolent crimes and reinvesting that in treatment and prevention at the local level.”

Opponents of Prop. 47, including the union lobbying group the Police Officers Research Association of California, argued that the measure would result in higher crime rates as more criminals return to the streets. The groups also pointed out concerns that felony possessions of drugs commonly referred to as date-rape drugs would become misdemeanors.

Last month, lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow voters to restore felony penalties for possession of those drugs, such as Rohypnol and GHB.

In San Francisco, Suhr said burglaries are up 20 percent, larceny and theft up 40 percent, auto theft is up more than 55 percent, between 2010 and 2014. Suhr said those crimes shot up largely due to prison realignment, Gov. Jerry Brown’s program that changed sentencing, sending thousands of convicted felons to county jail or probation instead of state prison. Suhr said auto burglaries are up quite a bit this year, and he believes it’s because of the Prop. 47 release.

Crime down last year

Last year, violent crime and property offenses in San Francisco were down overall, according to end-of-year data released by the Police Department last month.

“This situation is not unique to San Francisco,” Suhr said. “I don’t think this is something we can’t figure out, but there is a new normal for property theft we have to figure out.”

Prop. 47 scrapped felony penalties for possession of most illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, as well as for property crimes in which the loss was $950 or less. Prior to the measure, the threshold for misdemeanor property crimes was $450. Those crimes include forgery, check fraud, petty theft, shoplifting and receiving stolen property.

Defendants in those cases could still be charged with felonies if they had a previous conviction for specified serious or violent crimes or sex offenses.

“There are still consequences,” Anderson said. “Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor can face a year in county jail.”

Each year, 40,000 people in California are convicted of crimes covered by Prop. 47, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which projected the state will save $100 million to $200 million beginning next fiscal year from the measure. Most of that money is slated for mental health and substance abuse programs.

California has been under a federal court order since 2009 to reduce prison overcrowding. The three-judge court extended the deadline several times for the state to bring its inmate population to 137.5 percent of designed capacity.

1,300 inmates below cap

The state is currently 1,300 inmates below the final cap required by next year at its prisons, although the state utilizes out-of-state contracted prisons in order to meet the requirement.

“Prop. 47 was designed to ensure law enforcement agencies prioritize serious and violent offenders instead of sending people to state prison for personal drug use,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “Cycling addicts in and out of jail is a sinkhole for taxpayer resources, and it doesn’t make us safer.”