Sentencing

Californians Seem Ready for More Sentencing Reform

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Two years ago, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, California voters approved Proposition 36, which reformed the state's draconian "three strikes" law by requiring that the offense triggering a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life be "serious or violent." That initiative made about 3,000 prisoners eligible for resentencing. Now Californians seem to be on the verge of approving Proposition 47, which would redefine certain low-level, nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. The initiative would have a broader impact than Proposition 36, allowing some 10,000 inmates to seek shorter sentences.

Proposition 47 covers simple drug possession, plus several property crimes, including theft, shoplifiting, check forgery, and receiving stolen property, when they involve a loss of $950 or less. The maximum sentence for these offenses would be one year in jail. By contrast, cocaine possession, if charged as a felony, currently can result in up to three years in prison. So can check kiting, another "wobbler" that can be treated as a misdemeanor or a felony. Under Proposition 47, check kiting would have to be charged as a misdemeanor if it involves $950 or less, as opposed to the current limit of $450.

As the Drug War Chronicle's Phillip Smith notes, recent polling data bode well for passage of Proposition 47. A Field Poll conducted in June and July put support at 57 percent, while a poll conducted this month by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 62 percent of voters favored the measure. Like Proposition 36, Proposition 47 boasts support from prominent law enforcement officials, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne. It promises to reduce the severe overcrowding of California's prisons and cut spending on incarceration (although it earmarks the savings for a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, which would turn the money over to the Department of Education, the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, and the Board of State and Community Correction). Opponents include the California District Attorneys Association and the California Correctional Supervisors Association.

In a column earlier this month, Steven Greenhut looked forward to passage of Proposition 47 as another sign that Californians are reconsidering irrationally harsh criminal sentences. Further evidence of that: Last night Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Sentencing Act, which eliminates the sentencing disparity between the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine.