In November 2014, California voters enthusiastically enacted Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act. The electorate concluded that California's "get tough on crime" policy of lengthy incarceration and extended supervision of drug users and petty thieves was not an effective approach and that California needed to "get smart about crime."
Prop. 47 reduced the penalties for some low-level crimes that had previously been treated as felonies. Under Prop. 47, these low-level crimes are now viewed as misdemeanors. The idea was that our precious public safety money, which was previously invested in for mass incarceration, could be better spent treating and providing shelter and services to the many offenders who had a history of mental health problems and substance use.
The first phase of Prop. 47 has been a huge success. The savings for Fiscal Year 2016-17 alone is estimated to be over $39 million and the Department of Finance will finalize that figure by mid-August and deposit the money in a new "Second Chance Fund." No more than 5 percent of the money may be used for administrative purposes.
The Prop. 47 savings will continue to accrue. The ongoing yearly savings are now estimated to be a whopping $62.6 million. Sixty-five percent of these savings will be distributed back to our communities in a competitive grant program that focuses on community-based solutions for reducing recidivism with new local programs to combat homelessness, substance abuse, and recidivism.
Surprisingly, while everyone seeks to reduce recidivism there has been no shared definition of the word. For purposes of Prop. 47, recidivism is now defined as a conviction for a new felony or misdemeanor committed within three years of release from custody or committed within three years of placement on supervision for a previous criminal conviction.
But Prop. 47 is not without its critics. Many in law enforcement have decried the accelerated release of inmates and the shorter jail terms imposed on new offenders. Some claim they have seen an "uptick" in property crimes.
So, is Prop. 47 a failure? It's far too early to tell because the new treatment and community services created by Prop. 47 have yet to even commence. Later this summer, public agencies and community based organizations will have a two-month window to submit their grant proposals to the Board of State and Community Corrections. The grant money will likely not be available for distribution until the spring of 2017.
$62 million a year can fund a lot of new "get smart on crime" programs. It is clearly premature to judge the efficacy of Prop. 47 until these new programs are fully in place. There is much evidence-based data to suggest that Prop. 47's new approach will reduce crime once its second phase takes effect.
These are exciting times. Let's be patient and innovative as we try a fresh approach to the "War on Drugs."
Michael C. McMahon is chief deputy public defender of Ventura County.