Leading up to Election Day in November 2014, the ever-so-contentious Proposition 47 had even the most reasonable people taking opposite sides on the issue. The reason: The initiative would change certain low-level, nonviolent felony offenses to misdemeanors, including practically unlimited thefts under $950, check forgery and writing bad checks, drug possession and possession of a stolen gun, if the gun was worth less than $950. Voters supported the initiative by a 58 percent majority, being sold on the idea that by changing the level of offense, fewer people would be incarcerated, which would include the release of hundreds of thousands of what would be misdemeanor convicts in state prison, saving hundreds of millions of dollars every year to fund schools, crime victims, mental health and drug treatment. For many, it certainly seemed like a good idea. But even the greatest of intentions may be misguided at best, harmful at worst. Take, for instance, the spike in crime in the Ventura County Sheriff’s jurisdiction — a rise of 30 percent for violent crimes and 6 percent for property crimes for the first six months of 2015 compared to the same time period in 2014.
While Sheriff Geoff Dean can’t say there is a direct correlation between the passage of Prop 47 and the increase in crime, he did say that sort of spike in crime was unusual. When asked about any correlation, he relayed that because those who had been convicted of the above once-felony crimes opt not to go to a drug rehabilitation program that was once an alternative to jail and because they have no ongoing supervision with probation once released, he feels that those people are out committing more crimes because, simply put, they are not in custody and there is no accountability. While Dean has hired an analyst to better scrutinize the statistics and conviction information to understand the effects of Prop 47, he stated that he couldn’t currently see another valid reason for the recent and uncommon increase in crime.
Further, all the savings that were promised — Dean hasn’t seen that to be applicable to Ventura County or with the state prison system. While it was hoped that such criminals would not become inmates, sentencing is still up to judges to decide how misdemeanor convictions will be served — a fine up to $1,000 or jail up to six months. Because jail incarceration for misdemeanor offenses is still an option, the number of Ventura County jail inmates currently is up, instead of down — higher than it was before the passage of Prop 47 despite a drop following the initiative’s passage. The state prison population is also at 137 percent capacity. So what exactly did the general public get for passing Prop 47? It’s hard to tell if anything positive has come out of this.
There is no mistaking that finding progressive solutions to best serve offenders as well as the general public is difficult, if not nearly impossible. While some argued that Prop 47 would give many felons a reprieve and another chance to make better decisions, it’s unclear if any of that came to fruition. It certainly doesn’t appear that way in Ventura County. As we wait for the sheriff’s office to create a more finalized report on the impacts of Prop 47, perhaps it’s time to consider initiative reform, especially when it comes to illegal gun possession, drug rehabilitation and even probation. Limited jail time with no consequences afterward or only simple citations doesn’t seem to be working.