image by: Officer Bimblebury
An unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness giving some felons a chance to rewrite their past so that they -- and perhaps society-- have a better shot at a brighter future.
You can trace the change back to the beginning of President Richard Nixon's "War on Drugs," when many people convicted of simple drug possession became felons. Between 1980 and 2014 the nationwide prison population of nonviolent drug offenders swelled from 50,000 to 300,000. And that was only one prong of a mentality that led to California, a state the Washington Post labeled "a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime," spending over $10 billion per year on the penal system, overcrowding its prisons—including the 22 new ones built during the same period—so badly that federal courts forced the state's penal system to transfer or release mass numbers of offenders just to bring the system down to 137.5% of its design capacity.
In November 2014, Californians decided that enough is enough, passing Proposition 47 into law. Not very catchily known as "the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative," Proposition 47 recategorized a set of "non-serious, nonviolent crimes" from felonies to misdemeanors.
"I think the narrative in California—as well as many places across the country—has been a 'tough on crime' approach, dating back to Governor [Pete] Wilson and some of the lawmakers back then," says Hillary Blout, a Proposition 47 staff attorney. "Across the state there were more felonies on the books than there were 20 years ago [due to an] increase of new penalties for what is considered criminal conduct. And once you are convicted of a felony, there are more ways to keep people in [prison] for longer. It was a combination of these things that put us in the predicament that we're currently in."
Blout, who worked in San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's office before becoming the city's assistant district attorney, saw from the inside how flawed the old approach was.
"[… I realized] we could only make the necessary changes by changing the law," she says. "If you were a compassionate prosecutor, you would try to do the right thing, but the law was the law. […] Part of the reason I want to work for the DA's office was because I wanted to help make some shift in our criminal-justice system, and [then-District Attorney] Kamela Harris was one of the first people to talk about being 'smart on crime.'"
Proposition 47 was the brainchild of current San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit organization working "to replace prison and justice system waste with common sense solutions that create safe neighborhoods and save public dollars." Since the passage of Proposition 47, approximately 10,000 inmates doing time for drug possession, various thefts of under $950, and select other offenses were eligible to have their convictions resentenced as misdemeanors. (According to Californians for Safety and Justice Public Affairs Manager Will Matthews, to date over 4,700 have been released.) But far more Californians—somewhere around a million—can benefit from another provision of Proposition 47: having qualifying felonies reclassified as misdemeanors.
If you're convicted of a felony, a fine and prison time are only the beginnings of your problems. You can be disqualified from obtaining employment, a business license, and even voting. You can be denied federal benefits such as healthcare, public housing, and welfare. You can be denied a passport and even be disallowed from traveling more than 50 miles from your home.
Perhaps that's your just deserts if you're a violent offender or a career criminal. But not all felonies are created equally. Murder is a felony, but so is selling marijuana. What if you were an addict who got caught buying your drug of choice? What if you stole $500 worth of goods something 20 years ago? What if all you want to do now is turn your life around? Is it really in healthy for society to make it more difficult for you to live a normal life?
Californians for Safety and Justice set up MyProp47.org to help those million or so qualifying felons who pass a thorough review of their criminal history and risk assessment get their convictions classified as misdemeanors.
Donyell Green was one of those million. After a 2008 felony drug conviction, Green was unable to land full-time work, despite avoiding any further legal entanglements and mentoring young people in his community to avoid making the mistakes he made in his youth. Struggling to earn enough to provide for his two daughters, in 2014 Green got a full-time at a refinery, only to lose it when a background check revealed his felony. “Getting laid off really hurt," he says. "It made me feel like I can never move forward with my life because of what I did when I was younger.”
But then he learned about Proposition 47 and was able to get his felony reclassified as a misdemeanor. As a result, he was re-hired at the refinery and felt that “a cloud hanging over my head” had been blown away. “What the voters did is really a blessing—not just for me, but for a lot of people," he says. "It gives people a second chance at life.”
The passage of Proposition 47 may not have been an unmitigated good. As an October 2015 Washington Post article spells out in some detail, "unintended effects" from Proposition 47 may include an increase in property crime, thieves familiar with the law keeping strict track of how much they steal in one go so they don't exceed the $950 threshold that would bump their theft into the felony category, and a subpopulation of offenders who stay on the streets despite regularly getting caught committing crimes.
“It’s a slap on the wrist the first time and the third time and the 30th time, so [Proposition 47 is] a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card,” San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told the Post. “We’re catching and releasing the same people over and over.”
However true the issues raised in the Post article (Matthews says the article is "riddled with factual inaccuracies and mischaracterizations"), Californians believe that for the last four decades lawmakers have been sending to prison many people who have no business there.
"It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent person suffer," writes Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, the late 1760s treatise that is seminal to American jurisprudence. Even if Proposition 47 is not perfect, it takes a page from Blackstone's book and unhooks the yoke of excessive suffering from many, making many just deserts a little more just. The Post calls it "[a]n unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness." It may not be a perfect experiment, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
Your Path to Meaningful Connections in the World of Health and Medicine
Connect, Collaborate, and Engage!
Coming Soon - Stitches, the innovative chat app from the creators of HWN. Join meaningful conversations on health and medical topics. Share text, images, and videos seamlessly. Connect directly within HWN's topic pages and articles.