This week California became the first state in the nation to reduce certain nonviolent, drug related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. In Tuesday’s mid-term election, voters passed a new initiative (Proposition 47) that aims to reform the state’s criminal justice system and cut back its severely overcrowded prison population by reducing penalties for six low-level crimes. The law will most heavily impact simple drug possession cases, moving them from criminal offenses that require years of time behind bars, to minor offenses that more often require community service and/or a fine.
Many jailed inmates currently charged with felonies will see their cases downgraded to misdemeanors. According to a recent article in the LA Times, jailers in Los Angeles County are scrambling to make “preparations to deal with an unknown number of inmates charged with felonies that are now misdemeanors.”
Due to court-ordered jail population caps, which were put in place in response to overcrowding, LA County jails don’t usually hold people charged with misdemeanors.
One of the first people to have their case downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor was a man accused of drug possession who was facing more than a year behind bars for possessing heroin and methamphetamine. His lawyer, an LA County public defender named Ron Brown, had worked to get the case deliberately postponed until after the election. As a result, the defendant was “sentenced and released from custody with no further jail time,” as the Times reports.
“They were felonies yesterday. They’re misdemeanors today,” Brown told the Times. “This is the law now.”
Nicole Nishida, a spokesperson for the LA Sheriff’s Department, told the Times it will take time to reevaluate the cases of those currently behind bars. “We’re not conducting a mass release, today or tomorrow,” she said.
Other crimes downgraded to misdemeanors under the new law include theft, forgery and writing bad checks, as long as the stolen value is $950 or less. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey told the Times she was not convinced the new law would pan out the way it was intended. She voiced concerns that, while the law provides funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment, it may be difficult to get people to accept the treatment in question. She also voiced concerns over “cases involving the theft of guns.”
An answer to Lacey’s concern as to how the justice system will persuade people to accept treatment without the threat of a felony might come from Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs 13 years ago. The decriminalization of drugs did not make their use legal in Portugal, but users are no longer prosecuted as criminals. Instead, they pay a fine similar to a traffic violation. Under Portugal’s system, a small committee determines whether a given offender is in need of substance abuse or mental heath treatment, and makes a recommendation. Nobody is required to accept the treatment, but so far the results have been significant in reducing drug use nationwide. Ten years after decriminalization, drug use in Portugal was down by half, and those numbers have remained steady.
California’s voters have ample motivation –– both moral and economic –– to decrease the state’s incarceration rates. The state’s prison population is unwaveringly among the largest in the U.S.–– a nation that has just 5% of the world’s total population but holds a whopping 25% of its prisoners. Each year the budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation costs taxpayers $9.3 billion –– an average of $45,006 per inmate.
Drug possession cases account for a large portion of the state’s current inmates, and that inmate population consists largely of black and hispanic people. Despite the well-documented fact that each race uses drugs at similar rates, minorities are arrested throughout the U.S. at alarmingly disproportionate rates. According to the Public policy Institute of California, “African Americans are dramatically more likely to be imprisoned than other groups,” in California.
By passing Prop. 47, voters took a significant step towards ending mass incarceration and the racist war on drugs. As Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance writes, “Prop. 47 has the potential to drastically reduce the number of people in state prisons and county jails –– who don’t need to be there for reasons of either justice or safety –– by making 20,000 current people eligible for resentencing and reducing new admissions by 40,000 to 60,000 every year.”