After recently passing proposition 47 in the November elections, California voters took a significant step toward ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs. The state already made steps toward changing drug law in 2012 when it reformed the 'three strikes law'.
The passing of proposition 47 effectively reduces penalties for drug crimes by changing six low-level nonviolent offenses including drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors. Voters in the state showed overwhelming support for the proposition sending a message that they hope to reduce prison populations while still enhancing public safety.
A law like this has the potential to drastically reduce the number of prisoners in California who don't need to be there for reasons of either justice or safety.
Effects of Reducing Penalties for Minor Crimes
Overcrowded prisons in California could see a reduction after 20,000 people will be eligible for resentencing and new admissions will be reduced by 40,000 to 60,000 every year. After the passing of proposition 47, between 500,000 and one million people in California will be eligible for automatic felony expungement which will remove barriers to employment, housing, education and public assistance.
The proposition will help save more than $1 billion over five years and the money will be used for schools, victim services, and mental health and drug addiction treatment rather than wasteful corrections spending. The passing of this law and its profound effects on the state and individuals will likely resonate throughout the country.
Racial Issues in Drug Laws
The U.S. has nearly 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population with more people incarcerated than any other nation due to the government's war on drugs. Drug laws in the U.S. have also led to more severe outcomes for people of color.
While rates of drug use and selling are similar throughout each racial group in the nation, black and Latino people are far more likely to be incarcerated and criminalized for drug violations than Caucasian people. Proposition 47 is a step toward reducing the impact of drug law violations on minority communities and people facing severe sentences for minor drug crimes.
People arrested for personal use of illegal drugs will face misdemeanor sentencing instead of a felony which can have a dramatic impact on a person's life even after serving their sentence. The law will also set up a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund distributing savings accrued by the state to the Department of Education, Victim Compensation and the Board of State and Community Correction.
After the proposition is implemented, counties are expected to save between $400 million and $700 million annually and jails will see a freed capacity of 10,000 to 30,000 jail beds. Most of the savings for each county in California will be accumulated through freed jail capacity.
The majority of voters supported this proposition 58.5 to 41.5 percent because residents of the state are aware that the current sentencing and correctional system in California is an expensive and inefficient use of their tax money. Voters seem to prefer their tax money spent on education and healthcare rather than mass incarceration for minor crimes like drug possession.
The law will also reduce penalties for other minor crimes such as shop lifting, theft and check fraud under $950 reclassifying them as misdemeanors. People convicted of these offenses can petition for early release and there will be 40,000 fewer felony convictions per year.
The California prison system which is considered one of the most crowded and costly in the country will be dramatically improved by the law. Voters in California support the efforts to reform California prisons and reduce the number of people serving long term sentences for nonviolent crimes.