Cutting Prison Crowding

Californians will vote on lighter sentences to ease overcrowding in prisons
California would be the largest state to relax sentencing rules Photograph by Noah Berger/Bloomberg

Proposition 47 The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act

The Essentials
1. On Nov. 4, Californians will vote on Proposition 47, which would lighten penalties for some crimes to ease crowding in state prisons. Drug possession for personal use, writing bad checks under $950, shoplifting, and petty theft would become misdemeanors. As many as 10,000 people now serving time could apply for sentence reductions. According to a May report from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 39 percent of inmates are serving time for drug or property crimes.

2. In 1994, California voters approved Proposition 184, the “three strikes” law, which imposed mandatory life sentences for felons after their third conviction. State prisons filled to 200 percent of capacity. In 2011 the Supreme Court upheld a court order requiring the state to reduce overcrowding, citing constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment. Officials lobbied for an extension of the deadline and now have until 2016 to cut inmate counts to 137.5 percent of capacity.

3. Two billionaires, liberal George Soros and conservative B. Wayne Hughes Jr., have each given more than $1 million in support of Proposition 47. Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose Contract with America helped create a groundswell of enthusiasm for three strikes, is campaigning for change, too. “California has been overusing incarceration,” Gingrich wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Reducing wasteful corrections spending and practices is long overdue.”

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