Justice

People Are Already Being Released From Detention Because Of California’s Ballot Initiative

CREDIT: AP Photo/California Department of Corrections

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, California passed a ballot initiative to reclassify a number of non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. And on Thursday, at least six kids were released from juvenile detention in San Diego as a result.

While some of the criminal justice ballot initiatives passed Tuesday face years of implementation and procedural hurdles, the effects of Proposition 47 are immediate, the San Diego Tribune is reporting, with public defenders taking 200 calls an hour from inmates who are eligible to have their sentences shortened. Several kids in San Diego’s Juvenile Hall were immediately released pursuant to a law that prohibits juveniles from being held longer than adults for the same offenses. And the public defender’s office is expected to file a first round of petitions to get sentences shortened this week.

Some 10,000 inmates serving prison sentences for six low-level offenses could be eliglble to shave years off their sentence under the change. These felonies carried three years in prison. Now they carry at most one year in jail.

The offenses include drug possession for personal use, as well as five crimes involving property valued at less than $950: theft, writing bad checks, forgery, shoplifting and receiving stolen property.

One of the primary motivations for the initiative is California’s particularly overcrowded prisons. The state is behind in complying with a U.S. Supreme Court order that the state reduce its prison population. The justices held several years ago that state the conditions of overcrowding violate the Constitution.

But in addition to those who could have their prison sentences reduced or receive shorter prison sentences going forward, there are millions of people in the state who can apply to have the brand of “felon” taken off their record. All criminal records create barriers, but felony records are particular obstacles to voting, employment, and other basic services. There are also thousands of others subject to probation or other penalties short of jail that could have their sentences reconsidered.

The Proposition puts a considerable new burden on not just public defenders and courts who face a barrage of re-sentencing applications, but on local prosecutors, police and jails, who have jurisdiction over the six new crimes now that they are classified as misdemeanors. If localities can survive the initial strain, however, the net effect should be that there are less people and less money in the criminal justice system.