As many of you have asked our position on the upcoming prop 47, we are sharing the statements put out by CURB (top) and by Cookie, who is a Board Member of Justice Now (scroll down to the end). We are not making a public statement about whether to vote yes or no, but we encourage you to make an informed personal decision:
A Discussion on Proposition 47, The Safe Neighborhoods & Schools Act – November 2014
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) is a coalition of over 65 organizations with diverse points of view on the various provisions proposed in Prop 47. As experts on California’s incarceration policies who support reducing the number of people in prison, the number of prisons in California, and removing barriers to reentry, we believe it is important to participate in the conversations generated by Prop 47 and to point out both the positive steps that Prop 47 would bring about, as well as raise questions and concerns to consider.
The Proposition raises complex issues and we hope this document encourages member organizations to read the proposition, discuss its components, and reach their own conclusions. We encourage you to evaluate the net impact of Prop 47 on incarcerated individuals and their families, as well as the state budget.
California has a history of defining criminal justice policy through ballot initiatives. In order to achieve passage, many have included provisions that appeal to racism, and have strengthened aspects of “tough on crime” politics. Some provisions reinforce “business as usual” policy practices that harm communities of color by funneling state funds into destructive questionable “crime prevention” programs.
We have compiled the summary below in order to educate about the different aspects of this proposition.
Brief Summary of Proposition 47 – The Safe Neighborhoods & Schools Act of 2014
Prop 47 changes the lowest level nonviolent drug possession and petty theft crimes from felonies to simple misdemeanor for some people. It authorizes resentencing for any adult or juvenile who is incarcerated for these offenses and who is determined to “pose no threat to public safety.” According to the official website promoting the initiative “the majority of people who will be eligible for resentencing are people of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos.”
Provisions: The measure would require misdemeanor sentencing instead of felony for the following crimes:
- Shoplifting, where the value of the property stolen does not exceed $950.
- Theft, where the value does not exceed $950
- Forgery, where the value of a check, bond or bill does not exceed $950
- Fraud, where the value of the fraud does not exceed $950.
- Possession of a narcotic drug
- Possession of concentrated cannabis.
The measure would permit consideration of re-sentencing for anyone currently serving a prison sentence for crimes listed above. Proponents estimate a significant reduction to California’s prison and and jail population; around 10,000 prisoners would be eligible for resentencing. Re-sentencing is not guaranteed.
People with prior convictions for certain violent felonies would be disqualified from the reduced charges under the initiative. It emphasizes that “people convicted of dangerous crimes like rape, murder or child molestation” are not eligible for release.
It requires “thorough review” of criminal history and risk assessment of any individual before re-sentencing to ensure that they “do not pose a risk to the public.”
The measure creates a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund to receive savings accrued by the state during the fiscal year, as compared to the previous fiscal year, due to initiatives provisions. The estimated savings range from $150 million to $250 million/year.
Monies would be distributed from the Fund as follows: 25% to the Department of Education to reduce truancy and support at-risk students or victims of crime, 10% to the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board for trauma recovery centers, and 65% to the Board of State and Community Correction for grants to public agencies providing mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment to reduce recidivism of people in the justice system.
The Proposition makes strong distinctions between people with prior felony convictions for violent crimes. It emphasizes that only people “no longer a threat to public safety,” can be released.
Support and Opposition for Prop 47:
The measure will have a significant impact on incarceration rates, there will be the potential to release a large number of individuals, mostly people of color, and prevent thousands more from being locked up in the future. If in state incarcerations rate drop, there is potential to bring out-of-state prisoners back to California. It will also provide funding for education programs aimed at reducing truancy, mental health, substance abuse and jail diversion programs.
Numerous groups from across the state are supporting the measure, including faith-based organizations, community organizations, victims of crimes, organized labor, education, elected and political officials and organizations, judicial officers, law enforcement and public safety. For a complete list visit: www.safetyandschools.com.
If passed a majority of Californians would be affirming the need for locking-up fewer people. This could have resounding impacts on the national and statewide discussion on prison and mass incarceration. However, if voters are seen opposing criminal justice reform efforts, which could have a negative effect on ongoing efforts to reduce incarceration.
Groups opposing the initiative include California Police Chiefs Assoc., California Sheriff’s Assoc., California District Attorneys Assoc., and California Victims United.
Concerns to consider about Prop 47:
- The initiative strengthens the idea that those with certain violent felony convictions should not be part of the sentencing reform discussion. These convictions in many cases can be attributed to the structural racism, sexism and classism of the criminal legal system. When “violent felony convictions” becomes the dividing line for sentencing reform it reinforces the idea that such convictions are just and acceptable. Because it demonizes people with prior convictions, the disparities and racism of the existing system will be reinforced and deepened, much as they were with Three Strikes, which relied similarly on prior convictions.
- The crimes that will be changed to misdemeanors under the initiative are minor offenses, whether they are committed by someone with a previous record or not. There may be an opportunity in the next few years to do substantial sentencing reform which includes groups that are excluded by this proposed law. Prop 47 could serve to relieve the political pressure for more reform, and in fact create legal obstruction to such reform rather than be another step towards it.
- The majority of the Fund money (65%) will be under the control of the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC). The BSCC is charged with implementing realignment, which has resulted in directing billions of dollars of funding for construction of prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers. Given the Board’s composition, which includes an overwhelming majority of law enforcement officials, including the secretary of the CDCR, in effect this allocation expands the scope of the BSCC and gives law enforcement officials and agencies the power to decide on funding for mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and diversion programs. It is doubtful that any of this will translate into support for the kind of community-based programs which are crucial in order to implement a positive model for such programs.
- The measure assigns all the Fund money to public agencies that have a poor track record and could crowd out the availability of resources for community programs. This may obstruct communities’ abilities to use funds to create alternatives to corrections, and encourage expansion of politically powerful law-enforcement controlled responses to minor crimes. For example, funding could be used to build “therapeutic” jails, such as gender responsive jails or substance abuse programs in jails, while shutting off funding access to community-based therapeutic programs. Thus, the Fund provision may facilitate the broadening of custodial or law enforcement controlled diversions, even for low-level offenses, thus expanding and not shrinking the prison and jail system.
- In the last 10 years, the State of California has adopted many criminal justice reforms with claims that they will result in release of thousands of people in prison. Yet these claims have never been realized in the implementation of the policies. Instead, claims of thousands of promised releases have been used to try to justify removal of Federal Courts’ oversight over the California prison system, with demonstrated effort on the part of corrections officials to obstruct implementation of these policies once adopted. Examples of such insincere implementation include historical administrative obstruction of compassionate release, medical parole, and the Alternative Custody Program. In light of evidence of implementation of recent reform efforts, it is not clear that this proposition will result in near the numbers of releases predicted, and may instead be used to end federal oversight prematurely.
- The bold original ideas of justice reinvestment – that reducing the number of people in prison might provide funds to be reinvested in the neighborhoods from which many prisoners are taken – have been ignored by most “justice reinvestment” programs, which provide political cover for increasing the authority and budgets of law enforcement. Unfortunately, Prop 47puts virtually all the projected savings from reducing incarceration back into the budgets of law enforcement rather than spending it on the real needs of poor Californians of color. No housing, no freeworld health or mental health services, no more teachers or teachers’ aides or preschool programs. Crime prevention in schools, mental health and substance abuse for those inside to reduce recidivism, victims’ compensation: Prop 47 continues to define the problem as crime, not as lack of housing, education or freeworld treatment.
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) is committed to staying engaged in the long-haul as California struggles to overcome it’s terrible legacy of incarceration, both before and after the election of November 2014. We hope that this dialogue is useful in informing decisions on Prop 47, and the decisions that will come in it’s wake.
The High Cost of Prop 47
Cookie Concepcion, Justice Now Board Member
Currently imprisoned at the Central California Women’s Facility
We need sentencing reform that reaches out to and heals the hurting children and young adults in our community who, when healed, will help heal others. I am proof.
I watched the campaign advertisement for Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, while sitting in my cell in a California state prison. I wanted to write this to explain why I am urging you to vote against this damaging and divisive ballot measure. Proposition 47 supporters say it would stop the warehousing of petty, non-violent criminals in prisons, while boasting to keep violent criminals locked up.
Violent criminals like me. I was a gang member who perpetrated violence. I took someone’s life because he was from a different gang. I lived in the lie that it was necessary to defend my neighborhood by all means, including murder, and at all costs—including death.
I spent most of my adolescence and young adulthood in some sort of lie like that or another. I was always trying to be someone and something other than who I was. It was a painful thing to have to do. I put on various tough personas as a form of self-acceptance and self-protection from the abuse I suffered as a child.
I was abused emotionally, physically and sexually from the ages five to fifteen. The abuse began with my biological father and then was continued by my stepfather. The abuse ended when my mother left my stepfather. By then, my self-esteem was ruined. I was full of shame from the molestation and I hated the weak little kid who was too afraid to stop the abuse. I also felt vulnerable to re-victimization.
My solution was to become the opposite of that scared little kid, so I emulated violent people to be feared. Eventually though, each persona that I adopted failed me –the scared little kid would be exposed, and as a result, I consistently found myself in abusive relationships. I drank and used drugs to deal with the hopelessness I felt over my inability to secure a sense of personal safety and my inability to keep up the façade.
The hopelessness I felt ignited my weekend beer and marijuana use into a continuous state of intoxication, from prescription drugs like Vicodin to street drugs like methamphetamine, always washed down with alcohol. Each day also spurred me on to embody a tougher image. The cycle continued until the last character I portrayed, a gang member, was convicted of first degree murder and given a 13 years plus 56 years to life sentence to go along with it.
When I initially arrived in prison, I was the same abused child, inauthentic person and drug addict who got arrested. I was a mess emotionally, and people continued to take advantage of me, just like when I was free. I was aware that my problems related to the abuse I endured as a child but had no clue how or why. To figure it out, I sought psychological help from the mental health department in the prison.
For the most part, my quest for help from the mental health department in prison has been denied, so I sought alternative avenues. I got involved in a restorative justice self-help class, Insight Prison Project: Victim Offender Educational Group. I learned about my negative behaviors and their root causes. I learned how to recognize them and how to change them. I learned that I needed to forgive and love the little kid who did his best to deal with the abuse.
As a result, I do not try to be someone other than who I am anymore. I do not need to aggressively control a situation or passively endure it until I can aggressively control it again. I find that I’m quite capable of protecting myself in a healthy way by using assertive communication to express my feelings, desired outcomes and to compromise without violating my integrity.
The abuse I suffered and the coping skills I used are not excuses or justifications for the violent crimes I committed. To make amends for taking a life and harming my community, I made it my personal mission to save lives.
I helped found a gang prevention organization for people in prison. I’m also a founding member of a gang prevention panel that speaks to at-risk youth via video conferences. I speak to and mentor children and young adults [who] have experienced abuses similar to those I experienced, in order to help them avoid self-destructive behaviors as a result. I try to reach them before it is too late and they hurt others or lose their lives to the street or the prison, like I did.
I’m also a long-standing board member of Justice Now, a prison abolitionist and prisoner rights grassroots organization. I work with them to stop the unnecessary jail and prison expansion in the false name of public safety, to improve prison conditions and to give hope to my sisters and brothers behind the walls.
Unfortunately, Proposition 47 does not give any hope to me, or the thousands of people in California who are currently warehoused in prison just like me. It is another reminder that no matter how much we mature or are rehabilitated, the crimes for which we were convicted permanently place us in the “violent people” category. With that brand, we will never get a second chance.
Proposition 47 will not make California safer by permanently labeling people “petty” or “violent,” then using those labels to pre-determine who deserves access to rehabilitation programs and who deserves to be warehoused in prison. Lifers who parole are among those labeled as “violent” by Proposition 47 advocates, although they have the lowest recidivism rate amongst parolees (below 1%).
Proposition 47 will not save taxpayers money by requiring certain people to be warehoused in prison; it will actually cost taxpayers more. It seeks to prevent people like me from contributing to society, fully making amends to the families we injured and paying restitutions to the communities we harmed. I spent my viable working years through my 20s, 30s and now half through my 40s behind bars and will continue to remain warehoused in here until senior citizen status and beyond.
The cost of care for people in my situation will only increase as we age. I’m not eligible to go to the parole board until 2044, when I’ll be in my mid-70s. The chances of the Board of Parole Hearings granting me parole are slim. Once in my seventies, I will not be able to meet the basic board requirements of employment and self-sustainment.
Californians need to say NO to Proposition 47 and demand comprehensive and inclusive sentencing reform that follows a healing ideology for everyone who needs it, instead of just for “petty criminals.” It is past time to amend “tough on crime” and mandatory minimum sentencing laws like “3 Strikes” that permanently throw people away in prison.
California does not need Proposition 47. It needs sentencing reform that prioritizes substance abuse programs for people addicted to drugs and other rehabilitation like the eighteen-month restorative-justice class I took, for those in need of help, instead of lengthy imprisonment. Taxpayers save the state money by solving the root of the problem, which in turn makes society safer, instead of just sending people to prison. We need sentencing reform that reaches out to and heals the hurting children and young adults in our community who, when healed, will help heal others. I am proof.
Justice Now is a nonprofit based in Oakland, CA that partners with people in women’s prisons and local communities to challenge gendered violence and build a safe, compassionate world without prisons. We believe that prisons and policing are not making our communities safer but are actually causing significant harm. Our work is lead and directed by those directly impacted by the harms caused by the prison system. We are one of the only organizations to have board members currently in prison.