Criminal Justice

Californians Approve Another Important 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. Yesterday voters approved another important sentencing reform by passing Proposition 47, which redefines certain low-level, nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. The initiative, which was favored by 57 percent of voters, will 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 will now be one year in jail. By contrast, cocaine possession, if charged as a felony, previously could result in a prison sentence of up to three years. So could check kiting, another "wobbler" that could be treated as a misdemeanor or a felony. Under Proposition 47, check kiting will have to be charged as a misdemeanor if it involves $950 or less, as opposed to the old limit of $450.

"We've been trying to get simple drug possession reclassified as a misdemeanor through Sacramento for years, facing first an unwillingness by the Legislature and then last year's veto by Governor Brown," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "With Prop. 47, California voters took the issue of smart justice into their own hands. If the people lead, the leaders will follow."