Prop 47 Cheat Sheet: Reducing Low-Level Felonies

Prop 47 would reclassify low-level felonies, possibly reducing California's prison overcrowding problem.
Prop 47 would reclassify low-level felonies, possibly reducing California's prison overcrowding problem. | Photo: Jon Wiley/Filckr/Creative Commons License

This cheat sheet was published in tandem with a Prop 47 segment on KCET's "SoCal Connected." Watch it here or watch the full election special here.

Proposition 47 will appear on California's Nov. 4, 2014, ballot.

For decades, California's tough stance on crime, including its three-strikes law, has contributed to a swelling inmate population. In 2011*, prison overcrowding was so severe the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it as cruel and unusual punishment.

Despite measures to reduce overcrowding, like prison realignment, the problem still exists. At least in part, it's due to the 40,000 convictions each year for low-level felonies like possessing drugs for personal use or shoplifting, receiving stolen property, or forging checks in amounts less than $950.

Prop 47 would reclassify these crimes and other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. (Under current law, these crimes can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the details. You may may hear these either-or classifications referred to as "wobblers.") Prisoners currently serving time for any of the crimes Prop 47 would reclassify could have their sentences reduced. Sentence reductions would be subject to approval from a judge, who may deem that a prisoner is too likely to commit serious crimes.

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Here's a full list of the crimes Prop 47 would always treat as misdemeanors: possession of drugs (including cocaine and heroin) for personal use, grand theft under $950, shoplifting under $950, receiving stolen property under $950, writing bad checks under $950, and forging checks under $950.

The measure would not apply to offenders with a history of violent or sexual crimes.

Reducing penalties for these crimes, it's estimated, would decrease the state prison population by several thousand inmates within a few years. County jails would also see a prisoner reduction in the low tens of thousands. But since county jails are currently overcrowded and release inmates early, the actual population behind bars in county lockups may not decrease.

Putting fewer people away or sentencing them to shorter stays would save taxpayers an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars a year through cost reductions to state prisons, county jails, courts, and parole services, according to state legislative analysts. It's not clear how soon those savings would be realized, however.

This measure would direct all of those savings to the newly created Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, an account geared toward keeping Californians out of jail by keeping them in school, off of drugs, and mentally healthy. Sixty-five percent of the money would fund mental health and drug abuse treatment programs, 25 percent would fund truancy and dropout-prevention, and 10 percent would go toward support programs for crime victims. These programs, however, will only receive as much or little money that is saved by reducing to misdemeanors all the crimes listed in the measure. The money for these programs would be distributed to state agencies that already administer funds for similar programs.

Key Points:

Prop 47 would reduce to misdemeanors some nonviolent crimes that can sometimes be charged as felonies, such as drug possession for personal use, or shoplifting or receiving stolen property in amounts over $950

Prisoners serving time for those crimes could apply for reduced sentences

Prop 47 would not apply to offenders with a record of violent or sexual crimes

The estimated annual savings of hundreds of millions of dollars would fund programs for mental health, drug abuse treatment, truancy and dropout prevention, and programs for crime victims

What Your Vote Means:

Voting YES means low-level felonies like drug possession for personal use, forging checks, and shoplifting would be reduced to misdemeanor crimes

Voting YES means prisoners incarcerated for committing those crimes would be permitted to apply for reduced sentences

Voting YES means hundreds of millions of dollars in estimated savings from Prop 47 would go toward programs intended to keep citizens in school, mentally healthy and out of jail

Voting YES means state prisons and county jails would lock up tens of thousands fewer people within a matter of years

Voting NO means crimes like drug possession for personal use, forging checks, and shoplifting could still sometimes be charged as felonies

Voting NO means state prisons and county jails would not see a decrease in inmates charged with low-level felonies

Voting NO means prisons and jails would not see hundreds of millions of dollars a year in savings from penalty reductions, and that those potential savings would not fund drug treatment and mental health programs, truancy and dropout prevention or victim's services

Principal Supporters:
California Democratic Party
Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice
B. Wayne Hughes, billionaire
Open Society Policy Center
Atlantic Advocacy Fund
Molly Munger, lawyer

Principal Opponents:
California Republican Party
California Police Chiefs Association
California District Attorneys Association
California Coalition Against Sexual Assault

Click here for full text of the proposition.

*The prison and jail headcount has been reduced somewhat since the Supreme Court's ruling, due to 2012's Prop 36, and prison realignment. Respectively, those measures required that a felon's third strike be for a violent or serious crime, and required county jails to take low-level offenders from prisons. [Back to Top]

NOTE: The author of this post -- not the proponents of each measure -- selected the aforementioned key points for each ballot measure. They do not represent all of the provisions detailed in Proposition 47, rather they are intended to offer the salient details.

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