The California elections of 2014 included Proposition 47, a new approach to California’s “3 Strikes” penalty for habitual felony offenders and a means of funding programs for safe neighborhoods and schools. The measure reduces the classification of most “nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from felonies to misdemeanors UNLESS the defendant has one or more prior convictions for murder, rape, specified sex offenses and/or specified gun crimes.
Approved by a vote of 58.46% (vs. 41.54%), the measure will make California the first state to reduce certain felonies to misdemeanors in order to spare the state and an estimated 40,000 offenders/year from harsh, expensive imprisonment for “3 Strikes.” The felonies reduced to misdemeanors under the new law are: shoplifting, when the property value does not exceed $950; grand theft, where the property value does not exceed $950; receiving stolen property, where the property value does not exceed $950; forgery, where the value of the forged check, bond or bill does not exceed $950; writing a bad check, where the check value does not exceed $950; and personal use of most illegal drugs.
In addition to the 40,000 people per year who will receive lighter sentences due to the new measure, approximately 4,700 people currently serving prison sentences are eligible for resentencing and approximately 4,000 in the Criminal Justice system but not yet sentenced are eligible for the lighter sentencing.
Proposition 47 also redefined “unreasonable risk of danger,” for purposes of resentencing to shorter prison terms. Under the new law, the definition of “unreasonable risk of danger” is defined as likely to commit serious or violent crimes that include homicide, sexual assault and child molestation.
Proponents estimate that the new measure will save California $150 million to $250 million per year. Those funds are to be distributed to a newly created “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.” In turn, the Fund will distribute: 25 % to the Department of Education; 10 % to the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board; and 65 % to the Board of State and Community Correction.
The measure’s opponents have criticized it on several grounds. First, at least some of the reclassified crimes are not minor crimes: firearms theft, for example, increases the risk of the firearms’ use by criminals; therefore, firearms theft should remain a felony, whether or not the gun is worth less than $950. Secondly, the new definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” is too narrow, covering only eight specific crimes: 3 types of sex offenses; murder or solicitation to commit murder; assault with a machine gun on a peace officer or firefighter; possession of a weapon of mass destruction; and an offense punishable by life imprisonment or death. The narrow definition does not cover a host of individuals who could be quite dangerous to public safety. Finally, prosecutors previously had felony drug offenses as leverage to convince defendants to seek treatment; the new measure removes a strong incentive for defendants to seek treatment, though much of the Fund money will go to treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems.
For good or ill, Proposition 47 passed and its benefits/detriments remain to be seen in California.
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