California’s Proposition 47: Prevention vs. Punishment

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In late 2014, California voters adopted Proposition 47, a landmark bill that impacted the sentencing of drug-related offenses. This new legislation reclassified drug possession and several other non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. It’s been estimated that Proposition 47 could reduce the sentencing for over a million offenders, the majority of whom were arrested on non-violent drug charges.

The adoption of this bill has been met with controversy: is it a way to treat casual offenders with more compassion and reduce prison crowding, or is it a “get out of jail free” card that allows repeat offenders to game the system? Let’s take a closer look at the details of this sentencing reform and talk about its consequences on the legal system in California.

Understanding Proposition 47

Proposition 47 was developed in an effort to reduce overcrowding in prisons and encourage rehabilitation for drug users rather than incarceration.

The proposition involves major sentencing changes and allows for the re-sentencing of any individual serving a prison sentence for a crime covered under Proposition 47. Individuals who have already completed a prison sentence for one of these crimes are allowed to change their record to show a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

Examining the Consequences

Since the adoption of Proposition 47, over 4,400 people have been released in California, and another 123,000 individuals have petitioned the courts to change their current sentences. This reduction in the prison population has saved the state about $770,000 a day. Recidivism rates have remained exceptionally low, with one study claiming that the rate is hovering at around .005 percent.

Despite these encouraging statistics, skeptics blame the proposition for an increase in crime in California since the bill’s passage. Property crimes have risen by seven percent, and many law enforcement officers feel like they’ve lost a powerful tool in handling drug abusers.

The Future of Drug Courts

The approval of Proposition 47 has brought much speculation about the future of California drug courts. With most drug offenses being classified as misdemeanors instead of felonies, prison is a less-likely threat for many drug offenders.

Critics of this legislation argue that eliminating the possibility of incarceration reduces the effectiveness of drug courts; however, the proposition’s advocates claim that drug courts can still make a difference. Research shows that drug courts are most effective when serving individuals suffering from addiction who have a real need for treatment and services; for these offenders, treatment may be a better option than prison.

Proposition 47 has had far-reaching effects on California’s legal system, although it’s probably too soon to judge the overall success or failure of this bill. What we do know is that addiction is a chronic disease with a high relapse rate; hopefully, an increased emphasis on treatment rather than punishment will help offenders with addictions to permanently change their behavior and break the cycle of addiction and incarceration. Looking forward to this years election cycle, candidates weigh in publicly on their stance on drug legalization.

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