Justice

On Tuesday, Californians Can Take A Big Step Toward Ending Mass Incarceration

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For decades, Richard Martin’s life has imitated William Faulkner’s art: his past was never dead; it wasn’t even past.

“I learned how to be an addict from my mother,” Martin explained. He grew up without his father, who died before he turned one. Despite a talent for music and acting that landed him roles at the American Conservatory Theater and local clubs while he was still a teenager, he began using heroin by his 18th birthday.

Richard Martin

Richard Martin

Martin was first arrested for possession when he was 25. Like so many people struggling with addiction, his life ping-ponged between drugs and recovery, determination and relapse. Over the next decade, he worked at a bank, took classes, and was arrested another few times for drugs. The last conviction, despite being nonviolent, carried a felony sentence.

But Martin’s story doesn’t end there. He entered a rehabilitation center and eventually got clean. He earned a Master’s degree in English from San Francisco State University and published numerous articles and short stories. He began counseling other addicts and local youth, and was even honored for his work by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in 2004.

In many ways, Martin is the model for a rehabilitative approach to criminal justice. And yet, a decades-old scarlet letter remains permanently affixed to his name: “felon.”

To be branded a felon in America is not simply a matter of vanity. It is a societal declaration that, for the rest of his life, he will be denied certain rights. Martin and his wife would like to adopt children, and have tried. They were rejected because he is a felon. He wants to become a high school English teacher. He can’t, because he’s a felon. “I’m not bitter, but I don’t even bother to apply for jobs in the private sector anymore,” he said.

However, stories like Martin’s could soon become a thing of the past in California if voters approve Proposition 47 next week. The ballot measure, known as the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, would reclassify most “non-serious, nonviolent” drug crimes and other minor offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

Not everyone convicted of a nonviolent crime would benefit from Proposition 47’s passage. If the accused has been convicted of murder, rape, or specific gun crimes or sex offenses, he or she would not be eligible for the reduced penalty. However, for convictions in California involving minor amounts of personal drug possession, theft of property worth less than $950, or other similar offenses, the new law would mandate that the defendant be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Proposition 47 wouldn’t just apply to new cases. Instead, it would also retroactively apply to as many as 10,000 inmates currently in prison. If the measure is approved, they would be eligible for re-sentencing as well.

Those accused (or already convicted) of minor offenses aren’t the only ones who would benefit. By reducing prison sentences, California stands to save hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Proposition 47 would take those savings and create the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund”, which would be disbursed to various programs, including treatment for those suffering from drug addiction or mental health issues, schools, and restitution for crime victims.

In fact, the fight against mental illness could receive a major boost if Proposition 47 passes, as Rusty Selix, Executive Director of the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies, pointed out. The number of California prisoners with mental illness has doubled in the past 14 years, with nearly half of all currently inmates having been treated for mental health within the past year. The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund would give up to an additional $100 million per year for mental health and drug addiction treatment, a badly-needed infusion of money after the state cut $586 million from mental health programs between 2009 and 2012.

Some unusual coalitions have been formed both in support of and opposition to Proposition 47. Supporters enjoy a bipartisan swath of support, from California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom (D) and the California Democratic Party to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) and GOP presidential frontrunner Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

Both Republican bigwigs have penned op-eds urging Californians to support the measure. “Over-incarceration makes no fiscal sense,” Gingrich wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system,” while at the same time “California spends only $9,200 per K-12 student, and the average salary for a new teacher is $41,926. And as California built 22 prisons in 30 years, it built only one public university.” Paul echoed a similar theme in the Orange County Register: “We must change our current system – a system that drains tax dollars, destabilizes families and, worse, isn’t making us any safer.”

Meanwhile, opponents of Proposition 47 claim an equal bipartisan group, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to the California Republican Party. Feinstein wrote a counter op-ed of her own, arguing in the Los Angeles Daily News that “the reduction in sentences proposed by Proposition 47 would ultimately lead to the release of thousands of dangerous criminals, and a wholesale reclassification of many dangerous felonies as misdemeanors would put the people of California at continued risk going forward.”

But Feinstein et al’s prospects next Tuesday appear dim. Supporters of Proposition 47, including the ACLU, the NAACP, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, are vastly outspending opponents. As of publication date, supporters have raised nearly $11 million, compared to just half a million dollars that opponents have been able to garner.

In addition, most polling has shown that the measure is poised to win adoption. The latest poll, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in mid-October, found that 59 percent of Californians support Proposition 47, while just 29 percent are opposed and 12 percent undecided. A majority of Democrats and Independents support the measure, as well as a plurality of Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why it’s generating such a broad range of support. Beyond the fiscal aspect, Proposition 47 is a matter of social justice. “One of the most common barriers many of my clients had was the struggle with moving beyond their criminal record,” John Bauters, Policy Director at Housing California who works with individuals who are homeless or in poverty, explained to ThinkProgress. “The most common violation, by far, was minor drug possession. People are routinely denied employment, housing and social services on account of a prior criminal record.”

Indeed, employment barriers is one of the most perilous challenges that people convicted of felonies face after being released. Studies have found that a year after getting out of prison, up to three-quarters of ex-felons haven’t been able to find work. And this is not something that only impacts a tiny percentage of California’s prisoners; rather, as many as one in five current inmates could benefit if Proposition 47 passes.

There is a long tradition of Republicans stoking people’s fear of crime in order win elections. For every Richard Nixon elected to office, there were thousands of Richard Martins sent to prison to pay for their campaign promises. This year, the state that gave us Nixon and his war on drugs could begin to chip away at that very legacy.