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Prop 47: More than a “Get Out of Jail Free” Card

There’s a huge debate as to whether or not long-term prison sentences are the best option for drug addicts. With a prison system that’s already bursting at the seams, a handful of new proposals and amendments are being shopped around in an effort to change the trajectory of this juggernaut. One bill that’s showing some promising results is California’s Proposition 47.

This progressive and controversial piece of legislature has been in effect less than four months, but new findings from L.A. County’s chief executive office show the revamped policy is already yielding positive results.

A Look at the Movement

Simply put; the goal of Prop 47 is to get more people (with low-level crimes) out of prison and into addiction treatment programs. It was designed to address the ever-increasing influx of non-violent offenders in California’s prison system, as well as the post-release difficulties they faced in obtaining housing and employment with a felony on their record.

This new proposition reduces several non-violent felonies – including drug possession – to misdemeanor crimes. So, instead of potentially serving years behind bars, the maximum punishment is now a year in jail.

Due to California’s notoriously overcrowded prison system, most offenders are released after just a few weeks. With annual costs of $62,000 to house one inmate, it’s expected that Prop 47 will save the state roughly $200 million per year in prison costs. Those savings will in turn be used to provide mental health and drug or alcohol abuse treatment, among other things.

The Numbers

One thing’s for sure; the numbers don’t lie. Prop 47 has elicited the following drug-related outcomes in California’s Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system:

  • The jail population has been reduced from 18,000 to 17,000. At one point, those numbers reached as low as 15,360.
  • Many people caught with drugs or drug paraphernalia are now simply being ticketed, with narcotics arrests down 38 percent over a three-month period.
  • The county Probation Department has also seen about 3,000 fewer cases from the same time last year.
  • Many of those on felony probation for drug possession have either been switched to a lower-level of probation or been released completely.

Classifying Drug-Related Crimes

Those with felonies on their records for drug possession, both former and current inmates, as well as pretrial defendants now have options. They can apply to have their charges reduced to misdemeanors. Local criminal courts in Los Angeles will process 4,000 to 14,000 of these applications from pretrial defendants alone, while another 20,000 current inmates and 300,000 former inmates could potentially submit applications.

Those with felonies on their records for drug possession, both former and current inmates, as well as pretrial defendants now have options.

Questionable Complaints

There have also been some complaints about the new proposition, though some would question whether they are valid.

The main complaint seems to be that sign-ups for drug court programs have significantly dropped since Proposition 47 was passed. Without the threat of a felony record looming overhead, many people are opting for the more painful (but significantly shorter) jail sentences as opposed to spending up to 15 months participating in a drug court program.

“Now since we don’t have a hammer — maybe the hammer was a little too strong — I think the county has to focus a little more on how do we actually engage this population and get them into the services they need,” said Holly McCravey, an official who oversees these programs.

Will Prop 47 Catch On?

Although no other states are currently considering similar legislation, Prop 47’s success just might spark the inspiration for it.Though not nearly as extensive or involved, other states have opted to designate marijuana possession as a misdemeanor crime that no longer results in jail time. For example, New York and Washington D.C. have each rolled out their own versions of this marijuana legislation.