Within days of Californians’ overwhelming approval of an initiative that knocks low-level felonies down to misdemeanors, life in jail is ending for hundreds of felons and felony suspects.
Public defenders throughout the state kicked into overtime, working even on Veterans Day to manage thousands of situations of individuals awaiting verdicts or already doing time.
More than 4,700 state prison inmates are qualified for resentencing and feasible release under the brand new law, in accordance to the Ca Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Thousands more serving time in county jails or waiting for trial could stop up with lighter sentences and walk free.
Under Proposition 47, California is the first state to reduce a broad array of nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors — including drug control, theft, possession of stolen goods, forgery, shoplifting and check or credit card fraudulence involving less than $950. Defendants with records of violence or intercourse offenses are not qualified for more lenient charges.
“After the election, those crimes are no longer felonies,” said Allen Hopper, criminal justice and drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ca. The national ACLU contributed $3.5 million in support of Prop 47.
“In numerous cases, prosecutors are just dismissing the charges or working out a plea. People incarcerated waiting for test are walking out of prison with no conviction,” Hopper stated.
Thirteen other states classify easy medicine control as a misdemeanor; Ca is the first to reduce such charges across the board.
The idea was reinforced by an interesting array of conservatives (Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) and liberals (rapper Jay-Z). It was also strongly opposed — mostly by law enforcement, prosecutors and other teams arguing that easing charges would increase crime. But in a state that’s still struggling to comply with a 2011 Supreme Court ruling to reduce prison overcrowding, releasing low-level offenders made sense to 59 percent of voters.
The move is a remarkable reversal. Ca led the country at the ballot field 20 years ago for the opposite reason. That’s whenever voters authorized the harsh three-strikes legislation for defendants who'd two or more prior beliefs; if afterwards convicted of any felony, they encountered a phrase of 25 years to life in prison, also if the 3rd offense had been nonviolent. In 2012 voters eased the punishment. They approved amending the legislation to apply the stiffest sentencing only to serious or violent felons. Those who had been sentenced under the old legislation could petition the court for lighter phrases.
“And today here’s California reversing itself again,” said Jody David Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California and expert on gun control and racial profiling. “In some ways, we feel heartened that the electorate itself has taken this problem to heart.”
He worries, nevertheless, that the change may have the unintended consequence of ensuing in harsher therapy of those whom don’t qualify for lighter sentences. “It can demonize those who don’t qualify,” he said.
With Prop 47, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates “state and county criminal justice savings possibly in the high hundreds of millions of bucks annually.” The money the state saves from perhaps not having to incarcerate these offenders will fund school truancy and dropout prevention, psychological health and substance abuse therapy, victim solutions and other programs designed to help keep offenders out of jail and prison.
Supporters herald the change as an important action toward reforming the criminal justice system by spending less on incarceration and more on prevention and rehabilitation.
“It’s the very first time that criminal justice reform of the nature has been endorsed by public referendum,” said Will Matthews of the ACLU. It shows that the public is awakening to the fact that “simply securing up as many people as we could is perhaps not the smartest or many fiscally prudent way of approaching criminal activity and punishment,” he said.
At the ACLU, phone telephone calls from advocacy organizations are coming in from across the country, which may portend changes coast to shore. Also in Ca, “Prop 47 is only the start of sentencing reform,” Hopper stated. The hope is that the voter mandate will start a comprehensive review of the state’s penal and sentencing codes. “This might be exactly what voters want.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is going through the process of identifying who may qualify among those awaiting test.
“We do not have an exact number of pretrial felons who are being held solely on one of the crimes influenced by Prop 47,” said division spokeswoman Nicole Nishida. “A large percentage of inmates have numerous fees, so this will take time to evaluate.”
The modification is good news for defendants but a nightmare for city attorneys, who are inheriting thousands of situations that, when they were felonies, would have been handled by district attorneys. Now that numerous have actually been downgraded to misdemeanors, they land in city attorneys’ laps.
The time after the election, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer asked the City Council for lots more than half a million dollars to employ 15 more attorneys and assistants to manage a projected 13,500 brand new cases a year. But until the cash comes in, the town attorney’s office hit a deal with region attorneys.
“The D.A. will continue to manage the caseload with misdemeanors,” said Rob Wilcox, director of community engagement and outreach at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office. “They’re currently staffed up, and they would simply today prosecute them as misdemeanors until Jan. 31, 2015.”
Public defenders, whom supported Prop 47, are now working with thousands of situations that are pending or must be refiled for resentencing. In Contra Costa County, public defenders have actually been working nights and weekends to review cases of prisoners serving time in state prisons and county jails. Every Friday until the docket is cleared, they will dedicate judge time to those instances.
On Nov. 7, the very first Friday after the initiative passed, there were 100 instances on the schedule. They got through 80. “They had been either waiting for trial or sentenced to local custody.” said Robin Lipetzky, a general public defender for the county. “Thirty-five walked out of prison.”
Others will soon, including a 47-year-old man who was sentenced to six many years in state prison in Solano County for control of a small amount of cocaine. He has served four years. “He was bought released final Friday,” Lipetzky stated. Another who served more than a year of a five-year phrase for control of a little quantity of methamphetamine had been additionally purchased released.
In Alameda County, a couple of dozen inmates have actually been released in less than a week, stated Brian Bloom, an assistant public defender. “Within a couple of weeks, we wish to bring in all the individuals serving sentences on felonies that are today misdemeanors,” he said. “That’s most likely between 100 and 150.”
How is the office handling the workload? “We’re simply doing what public defenders constantly do,” he said. “Many of united states were in on Veterans Day.”