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Prop. 47 leads to fewer arrests, longer periods of incarceration

Proposition 47 is reducing prison populations, but it may be causing longer periods of incarceration for inmates who are unaffected by the legal changes.

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 47. Under this law, drug possession for personal use and certain minor property crimes are now categorized as misdemeanors. As many people in Riverside know, this measure was intended to reduce the state's inmate population by sparing new offenders from harsh sentencing and allowing certain previously convicted offenders to qualify for release.

So far, the measure has been successful in this goal, but it has also had an unexpected effect. The Los Angeles Times reports that people who are convicted of offenses that are not addressed under Proposition 47 may now be more likely to spend more time in jail, since early release is no longer necessary to maintain a reasonable inmate population.

Overview of changes

Materials from the California Secretary of State's website explain that Proposition 47 identified six nonviolent "wobbler crimes," which could previously be charged as misdemeanors or felonies, and reclassified those offenses as misdemeanors. This change results in considerably less severe sentencing terms for convicted offenders. The following offenses are now considered misdemeanors:

  • Drug possession for personal use
  • Shoplifting
  • Theft
  • Forgery
  • Writing bad checks
  • Receiving stolen property

The property crimes are only considered misdemeanors if the property in question is worth less than $950.

According to The Los Angeles Times, several jails have reported decreases in inmate populations since this measure became effective. In San Diego County, the inmate population has dropped 16 percent. In Orange County, the inmate population fell 22 percent over the same time period. These population decreases may leave current inmates and recently convicted offenders in danger of serving much longer terms.

Increase in incarceration

The Los Angeles Times explains that, in the past, it was relatively common for California inmates to serve a fraction of their sentences due to prison overcrowding. Some inmates served as little as 5 percent of the time that they were ordered to spend incarcerated. Now, as overcrowding becomes less of an issue, more inmates may serve larger proportions of their sentences.

For example, in Los Angeles County, people convicted of crimes such as burglary and DUI used to serve an average of 10 to 20 percent of their terms. People convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses served 40 percent of their time, on average. Now, the former are serving 90 percent of their sentences, while the latter are serving 100 percent of their terms.

The Los Angeles Times notes that many inmates still will not ultimately serve their full sentences. Still, the risk of significantly longer periods of incarceration is one that Californians currently facing criminal charges should appreciate.

Seek legal guidance

Anyone who has been charged with a crime in California should consider consulting with a criminal defense attorney. An attorney may be able to help an accused person understand his or her rights and work toward the most favorable outcome available.

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