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Last year, California voters passed Proposition 47, which mandate downgrades of certain drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. It also requires misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging/writing bad checks when the amount involved is $950 or less. Qualified defendants who have served their time for, and are off probation or parole, may apply to be resentenced for a misdemeanor. Defendants currently serving time or on probation can also apply, and may be entitled to release.
Prop. 47 also included language promising that the state and county savings in the “high hundreds of millions of dollars annually” from reduced incarceration costs would be spent on “school truancy and dropout prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victim services.”
The allure of Prop. 47, when tidily packaged in this manner, is understandable because it seemingly offered a fiscally balanced and rehabilitative approach to the very real issue of an escalating prison population and the costs of housing inmates. Approximately one year into its implementation – with more than 3,700 inmates processed for reduced sentences and released from state prison – the full ramifications of Prop. 47 are coming into focus, and none of them bodes well for the safety and security of our communities. While Prop. 47 has reduced the prison population, it has also had some far-reaching and major unintended consequences that, ironically, reduce the prospects for rehabilitative treatments and undermine the effectiveness of proven crime-fighting tactics.
Under California law, law enforcement agencies are permitted to take DNA samples only from felony suspects. With the implementation of Prop. 47, the DNA collected for a felony crime – now reduced to a misdemeanor – could be destroyed or set aside. In the event that the DNA is not destroyed and does show up as a match for a subsequent crime, the legality of using this DNA would certainly come into question. Based on the number of prospective offenders who qualify for a crime reduction, the number of DNA samples that go untested and/or destroyed could run into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Any one of these could be a match for a murder or rape case, but because of Prop. 47, the DNA match may never happen.
The mental health and drug treatment aspect of Prop. 47 has also resulted in a surprising twist: Offender participation in rehabilitative mental health and drug programs is down throughout the state. Los Angeles County has seen a 60 percent decrease in its rehabilitative drug programs. San Diego County reports that its role in rehabilitative drug programs is down. It doesn’t take much to see why: By reducing a drug offense from a felony to a misdemeanor, Prop. 47 has removed the incentive for a drug offender to enter into an 18-month drug treatment program when the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor drug offense is six months or even less. This is not about possession and use of marijuana, but drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, for which treatment is a critical component of recovery.
Another major repercussion of Prop. 47 is the fact that offenders who possess “date rape” drugs – commonly used to sexually assault women – can now only be charged with a misdemeanor, which means that their DNA can’t be collected. Law enforcement has lost a valuable tool in our fight against sexual violence.
Prop. 47 came on the heels of another major law enforcement initiative, realignment, which dramatically shifted responsibility from the state to the counties for tens of thousands of offenders. As a result, the safety and health care concerns previously evident in state prisons are now being seen in county jails. Interestingly enough, a preliminary study by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors suggested that Prop. 47 is actually working in a counterproductive manner to the objectives of realignment: The jail space that was being occupied by those drug-related offenders, who are now free is allowing realignment prisoners to serve a larger percentage of their sentence. Despite its shortcomings, realignment did provide for funding of the increased health care and monitoring costs incurred by local law enforcement. Other than a vague directive for the state to evaluate any savings in 2016, Prop. 47 contains no specific funding provisions, effectively making the rehabilitation/social services components of Prop. 47 an unfunded mandate. As a result, local governments have to deal with an increased drug dependent population, many of whom suffer with underlying mental health issues.
Most in law enforcement understand that incarceration alone is neither an effective nor cost-beneficial strategy to address crime. We value the positive impact of rehabilitation and treatment for drug dependency and mental health issues that are often intertwined with criminal activities. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department has several rehabilitative programs, such as a veterans initiative in collaboration with the VA, and vocational programs for inmates with the Grossmont Adult Education Program. We also work with the Meth Strike Force to conduct field operations to target those who possess drugs, and when in contact with them, offer immediate placement in either treatment facilities or jail. However, all of these rehabilitative and treatment services cost money – and Prop. 47 does not provide funding for local treatment beds that law enforcement can use to address the drug dependency and mental health issues.
Bill Gore is the San Diego County sheriff.