California Voters Pass Bill to Reduce Incarceration


California voters on Tuesday passed Prop 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, which changes low-level nonviolent crimes like simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors, and directs the cost savings to schools, mental health treatment, and victim services.

The law will help reduce massive overcrowding in California’s prisons by redefining property crimes involving less than $950 and drug possession for personal use as misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in county jail.

About 10,000 people currently serving prison terms for eligible offenses may now apply to have their felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors. The measure will result in 40,000 fewer felony convictions every year.

Keeping people out of prison is expected to save the state at least $150 million a year, which will be used to support school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, mental health and drug abuse treatment, and other programs designed to expand alternatives to incarceration.

Prop 47 enjoyed strong support, leading in every poll conducted since it was certified in June. As its main sponsor, San Francisco district attorney George Gascón, explained, “Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked.”

The passage of Prop 47 marks the second time in two years that California voters have enacted measures to reduce mass incarceration. Prop 36, passed by voters in 2012, reduced the sentence for repeat offenders whose third strike crime is minor or nonviolent. California was once a national leader in harsh sentencing schemes, but its voters are now leading the way to recovery from the state’s costly and destructive mass incarceration binge.