Voters in the state of California approved Proposition 47 in 2014. Proposition 47 was an initiative that reclassified a number of felonies as misdemeanors, and it allowed some people in California to have previous felony convictions reduced to misdemeanor convictions. Also, according to figures recently released by the State of California Justice Department, the voter-approved initiative has led to the lowest arrest rate in California history. Some legal experts believe that arrests are declining in California because many police officers are simply ignoring the property and drug crimes that were once felonies and are now only misdemeanors.
Recently released California Justice Department statistics show that the number of felony arrests in the state declined by 28.5 percent in 2015, while misdemeanor arrests across the state actually rose last year by about 9 percent over the 2014 total. In all, about 52,000 fewer arrests were made in California in 2015 compared to 2014, marking the lowest arrest rate since the state began compiling arrest statistics in 1960. Felony arrests across the state dropped in 2015 to the lowest total since 1969.
Magnus Lofstrom, speaking for the Public Policy Institute of California, told the New York Times that the declining arrest rate is “really driven by changes in drug and property arrests. I think it’s quite clear that Prop 47 is the major contributor to the changes we’ve seen.” Mr. Lofstrom said that lower arrest rates may also be due to excessively crowded jails – meaning most offenders are already off the street – and may additionally be affected by a reduction in the number of police officers throughout the state. Mr. Lofstrom speculated that it is still too early to determine if California’s crime rate is on the rise as a result of Proposition 47.
ARE POLICE OFFICERS SIMPLY IGNORING SOME CRIMES?
In 2015, the 52,000 fewer arrests included 22,000 fewer drug arrests. California law enforcement officials told the New York Times that many of the state’s drug offenders are now simply cited and released rather than formally arrested, or else they are ignored entirely by California police officers who believe the penalties for minor drug violations are now too insignificant to bother with the work of arresting, booking, and formally charging a suspect. However, most police officers still make arrests for drug crimes, and those charged with a drug violation in southern California will still need the advice and services of an Orange County criminal defense attorney.
Donny Youngblood, who is the sheriff of Kern County and also the president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, agreed that some officers may no longer be making arrests on minor drug charges. “The de facto decriminalization of drugs may have an impact,” he told the Times. “We do know that there’s a lot less arrests being made, which means there are a lot more people on the streets using drugs.”
In a recent survey of 40 of the state’s 58 county superior courts conducted by the Judicial Council of California Courts, those courts reported a slight increase in failures to appear for misdemeanor arraignments since Proposition 47 took effect. Ken Corney, who is the chief of police in Ventura and the president of the California Police Chiefs Association, told the Times, “If people aren’t showing up in court, if they’re not going to go to drug court, we’re going to see what we’re seeing, which is increased crime rates in our communities.”
IS CRIME ON THE RISE IN CALIFORNIA?
Crime across our state does seem to be on the rise. Violent crime in California increased 10 percent last year over 2014. Property crimes also increased. Shoplifting charges grew last year by 12 percent, and theft charges increased by 11 percent. Both shoplifting and theft are crimes that Proposition 47 impacted. However, Proposition 47 has increased participation in drug courts and in court-ordered drug education classes, because those classes are almost always part of the sentence for a misdemeanor drug conviction.
Judge Stephen V. Manley of Santa Clara County, who is also the president of the California Association of Drug Court Professionals, told the Times, “I think it’s been a fairly dramatic response to getting treatment to the people that need it the most.” However, Prop 47 has also meant fewer plea bargains, according to the Judicial Council survey, since criminal suspects tend to reject plea bargain offers if there is no possibility of a felony conviction or a prison sentence. Prosecutors may be reacting by pursuing more drug and property charges as felony prosecutions.
California Public Defenders Association spokesperson John Abrahams said, “Some D.A.’s offices have tried to charge their way around Prop 47, no question about it.” But California District Attorneys Association chief executive Mark Zahner told the New York Times that California law enforcement authorities are simply taking the opportunity to focus on targeting more serious criminals.
WHAT WAS THE INTENTION BEHIND PROPOSITION 47?
The legal changes were intended to free up California’s critical law enforcement resources for the effort to fight more genuinely serious felonies, according to Lenore Anderson, a San Francisco Bay Area attorney who was instrumental in the 2014 campaign to pass Proposition 47. Attorney Anderson told the Times, “My highest hope is that we start to really see some innovation that we haven’t seen in the past.”
Some innovations are already being implemented. For example, the state’s budget for this year includes $15 million for California law enforcement agencies to experiment with case managers and diversion programs to help prostitutes, low-level drug dealers, and others transition out of their criminal lifestyles – instead of placing them behind bars where they are likely to learn how to be more clever criminals.
More than 58 percent of those casting ballots in California in 2014 voted to approve Proposition 47, and it is already making a big difference in the lives of thousands of people in our state. To learn more about how Proposition 47 might affect you or someone you love, speak to an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney. You may be able to have an old felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor, or if you have lost your right to own a firearm in California, you may be able to have that right restored.