California saw its overall arrests plunge to a record-breaking low last year following the adoption of Proposition 47, a voter-approved initiative to reduce penalties for drug and property crimes, changing them from felonies to misdemeanors. According to CBS, California saw 52,000 fewer arrests overall in 2015 compared to the previous year – the lowest arrest rate in the state since 1960 when they began keeping arrest records.
“I think it’s quite clear that Prop. 47 is the major contributor to the changes we’ve seen,” said Public Policy Institute of California researcher Magnus Lofstrom. “It’s really driven by changes in drug and property arrests.”
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prop. 47 reclassifies several drug possession felonies as misdemeanors, as well as requiring misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property, and writing or forging bad checks under $950.
And while many are questioning Prop. 47’s efficacy, arrests are definitely down, with not only the record-breaking low in arrests overall but the lowest felony arrest rate since 1969. The rate of drug-related arrests has also dropped by 22,000 since last year.
However, many, including Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, believe that Prop. 47 is only spurring a spike in California crime rates.
“The de facto decriminalization of drugs [i.e. Prop. 47] may have an impact. 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.”
Drug offenders are now much more likely to be cited and released, or ignored entirely. Meanwhile, many courts are reporting an increase in failures to appear for misdemeanor hearings since Prop. 47 passed – a statistic that Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, feels is also contributing to the rising crime rate.
“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.”
The State Department of Justice says that violent crime rates increased by 10 percent last year, shoplifting crimes by almost 12 percent, and thefts by 11 percent. While it is unclear that this can be directly linked to Prop. 47 – many other factors, including long, hot summers, are also commonly associated with increased crime rates – there does seem to be a definite relation between the kinds of crimes being committed and the crimes reclassified by Prop. 47. The Judicial Council also found that fewer plea bargains were being accepted since the threat of felony convictions and extended prison time was removed.
But others feel that if there is a cost associated with Prop. 47, it’s worth it to reduce severe prison overcrowding due to minor crimes and a refocusing of law enforcement issues on larger issues and more serious criminals. The newest state budget also includes $15 million redirected to help police experiment with assigning case workers and diversion programs to prostitutes and low-level drug dealers.
As B. Wayne Hughes Jr. of the San Francisco Chronicle puts it, “Proposition 47 [is] changing records, changing lives.”
“What were their crimes? For a majority, it was some form of petty theft – items worth less than $950. For others, it was drug possession, writing bad checks, receiving stolen property, or some type of nonserious, nonviolent crime.”
“These men and women have made mistakes, but a person should never be defined by what they did five or 50 years ago. Their felonies are a ball and chain that follows them, eroding their families and costing our communities dearly.”
Prop. 47 might be resulting in an increased crime rate in California, but it’s reducing minor arrests, pardoning formerly-convicted felons for ultimately minor crimes, and giving people who haven’t committed a serious offense to get their lives back on track. It’s also reducing prison populations, which ultimately reduces the cost to taxpayers – in California, it costs about $47,000 to imprison someone for a single year – and focuses more law enforcement resources on stopping serious crime.
Is it causing a spike in crime? Perhaps. But maybe a few more minor crimes are a price worth paying.
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]