Californians Vote on Lighter Penalties to Relieve Prisons

Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP

California voters are being asked to lighten criminal penalties for low-level drug possession and nonviolent thefts such as shoplifting, to help ease crowding in the state’s prisons.

Support for the ballot initiative is uniting billionaires on opposite ends of the political spectrum, from financier George Soros and Netflix Inc. Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings to Republican donor B. Wayne Hughes Jr., son of the founder of Public Storage, the largest self-storage business.

Proposition 47, reducing certain non-violent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, is a turnabout for the state that enacted one of the first Three Strikes laws in 1994. It’s one of six measures on the statewide ballot that also asks voters to sell bonds for water works, stash money away for a rainy day, restrict increases in health care insurance premiums, and boost malpractice civil judgments.

“This is incredibly significant,” said Nichole Porter, director of policy advocacy for the Sentencing Project in Washington. “This could set the stage for the next 20 years in terms of rethinking the nation’s approach to criminal justice policy. If the voters of California authorize this ballot measure, that will really change the conversation nationally.”

Simple drug possession, bad checks under $950, shoplifting and petty theft with the same limits would be misdemeanors, generally punishable by a fine or a term in county jail, rather than a felony, requiring a prison sentence.

Sentence Reductions

The initiative would apply not only to people entering the criminal justice system, but to as many as 10,000 already in California’s prisons for petty crimes who could apply for sentence reductions. The law wouldn’t apply to offenders convicted of murder, rape, and sex or gun crimes.

Fifteen percent of California’s prison inmates are there for drug crimes, and 24 percent for property crimes, including theft, according to a report released in May by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

While states such as Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana have made sentencing changes, California would be the largest to do so.

“California always seems to have an outsized impact on the dialog,” said Adam Gelb, the director of the public safety performance project at the Pew Charitable Trust. “But in this case, the reform itself is not earthshattering groundbreaking stuff.”

California’s prisons filled to 200 percent of capacity in connection with the the Three Strikes law. A federal court said overcrowding amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, gave the state a deadline of Feb. 28, 2016, to get the prisoner count down to 137.5 percent of capacity. As of Sept. 30, the level was 138.4 percent.

Federal Change

California’s ballot measure comes as Democrats and Republicans alike have called for sentencing changes nationally. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last year ordered changes to mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders. U.S senators such as Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky have come out in favor of such changes.

Supporters say the measure will reduce the burden on California’s prison system and make it easier for convicts to return to society productively by shifting petty criminals into alternatives to prison cells, such as community service, work release and drug treatment programs.

Soros Support

Soros’s Open Society Policy Center has donated $1.2 million of the $4.1 million collected through Sept. 30 in support of the campaign, according to campaign finance data collected by the California Secretary of State. Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros, said he was out of the country and unavailable to comment.

Hughes, who has donated about $1.3 million in support of the measure, didn’t respond to telephone calls seeking comment. Cliff Edwards, a spokesman for Hastings, who’s given $250,000, said he was unavailable for comment.

Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, also has come out in support of the measure.

“Obviously, we need prisons for people who are dangerous, and there should be harsh punishments for those convicted of violent crimes. But California has been overusing incarceration,” Gingrich and Hughes said in an opinion article published by the Los Angeles Times last month. “Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.”

Police Lodge

Most of the $278,000 raised by opponents of the sentencing measure has come from law enforcement, led by $230,000 from the Peace Officers Research Association of California. Others fighting the measure include the California Republican Party, the California Retailers Association and crime victim groups. Opponents says the measure is unnecessary and is written to benefit criminals and won’t help make the state’s streets safer.

Proposition 47 “is grossly mislabeled as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” said Napa County Sheriff John Robertson. “We are concerned about the possible release of 10,000 inmates from prison and having the task of having to resentence them.”

“There is a misconception that there are a lot of people in jail for petty crimes,” he said. “These people are not petty criminals. Very few petty criminals end up in prison today.”

Polls Support

A Field Poll of 1,535 likely voters in August found 57 percent would approve the initiative, with 19 percent undecided at the time. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points. A Public Policy Institute of California poll last month found support higher at 62 percent support for the sentencing issue, with 13 percent undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

Also on the ballot is a measure known as Proposition 1 championed by Brown to authorize $7.5 billion from bond proceeds to refurbish California’s aging water infrastructure. It replaced an $11 billion proposal that former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had negotiated in 2009.

Proposition 2, also championed by Brown, would require the most populous U.S. state to set aside 1.5 percent of general-fund revenue each year as well as capital-gains taxes that exceed 8 percent of the general fund. Credit rating companies have long criticized California for its failure to set aside money when the economy is booming and for relying too much on capital gains taxes, which vary with the performance of the stock market.

Insurance Power

Proposition 45 would give California’s elected insurance commissioner the power to reject proposed health-insurance rate increases. Opponents are bankrolling an ad campaign urging voters to “Stop the Politician Power Grab.”

Blue Shield of California Life and Health Insurance Co., Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of California, Wellpoint Inc.’s Anthem Blue Cross, Health Net Inc. and UnitedHealthCare Services Inc. have provided most of the $23.9 million collected to defeat the measure, campaign records show.

Proponents of the measure, led by lawyer-supported nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, have raised about $1.6 million, according to the secretary of state’s office. Their campaign calls on voters to “Put the Brakes on Rates.”

Another initiative, known as Proposition 46, would lift California’s limit of $250,000 on medical malpractice damages for pain and suffering, which became a model for other states almost 40 years ago.

The measure would allow so-called non-economic legal damages to account for inflation, effectively raising the cap to more than $1 million. The proposal would also require drug and alcohol tests for doctors.

Opponents have raised $56.9 million to fight the measure, with the Cooperative of American Physicians and Norcal Mutual Insurance Co. each giving about $10 million. Proponents have raised $5.5 million, led by Consumer Attorneys of California at about $1.2 million.

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