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It’s Time for our Elected Officials to Publicly Acknowledge the Unintended Consequences of Prop 47

By Kerry Morrison

May 25, 2017

I will confess. I bought into the narrative around Prop 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. But how many would assert today that our neighborhoods are, in fact, safer than in November 2014 when the measure passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote? Perhaps it is time to reconsider parts of this law.

To recap, the intent of the measure was to reclassify several drug and property felonies as misdemeanors. According to the ballot pamphlet, the promise was that the funds saved to state prisons and local jails would be captured and reinvested into “school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, mental health and drug abuse treatment, and other programs designed to keep offender out of prison and jail.”

As described in a blog I wrote in April about the declining sense of safety we are experiencing here in Hollywood, I am looking backwards to see what has changed. There are a number of contributing factors, in my opinion, but let’s start with Prop 47. Show me why this doesn’t deserve scrutiny.

  1. Our neighborhoods are less safe now as compared to before Prop 47 was passed.
  2. The monies for mental health and drug abuse treatment have failed to materialize.
  3. Law enforcement seems to be taking a “hands off” approach toward the enforcement of misdemeanors.

Let’s look at each of these.

Less safe: Consider what local law enforcement officials are saying. The California Police Chief’s Association reported last summer that property and violent crime increases were unique to California, and not experienced in the rest of the country. In Seal Beach just a few weeks ago, the police department reported that local crime is 15% greater than three years ago.  Similar reports are coming out of smaller towns like Auburn, Lodi, Escondido, Huntington Beach, Benicia. Does anyone think this trend will magically reverse itself?

The president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, Marc Debbaudt, explains how crimes committed after Prop 47 are being treated differently, sometimes allowing people with a criminal record to go unpunished. He provides an example: “someone who has been convicted and served time for a serious crime – such as armed robbery, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon – can no longer be sent back to prison if convicted of a new theft or drug offense, because these have been reclassified as misdemeanors.”

According to an LA Times article this March, Californians for Safety and Justice report that the state’s average daily prison population has decreased by 8,000 people. The CA Department of Corrections reports that 4,700 people have been re-sentenced and released from prison and 3,300 few people will be incarcerated each year. The public policy aim of reducing mass incarceration is a worthy goal, but the support systems that were promised have yet to materialize.

Where are the savings? The measure called for savings of hundreds of millions of dollars annually that would be reinvested. In the 2016 budget, the governor estimated first year’s savings at $28.3M, dramatically less than was promised in the voter ballot language. (The state Legislative Analyst office calculated closer to $150M in savings.) Rules established by the state appear to place the responsibility with the Controller to disburse monies generated from the savings each year according to this formula: 25% for public schools for truancy and related programs; 10% to victim compensation, and 65% to Board of State and Community Corrections to administer grants supporting mental heath and substance abuse treatment and diversion. Those monies are just starting to roll out, two years later.

Given this two year gap in “reinvesting savings,” the outcome has been less intervention for people enslaved by substance abuse who are less likely to go into treatment. As Debbaudt states, “The justice system lost all leverage to mandate rehabilitative drug programs.” A jail sentence may be a few days or a few hours and drug addicts are back on the street.

Mother Jones reported in December that the experiment to release drug offenders from prison has encountered a challenge: “Once they’re out, there aren’t enough social service programs to help these offenders overcome addictions and restart their lives.” They reference an 2016 investigation conducted by USA TODAY Network-California journalists, who found that “thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.”

Misdemeanors go unpunished. In Hollywood, it appears that the misdemeanor associated with overstepping one’s two hour parking meter will be punished far more swiftly than the misdemeanor associated with smoking meth in front of a busy restaurant where people are trying to enjoy patio dining. There is evidence of drug use every few blocks as one walks the busy streets of Hollywood – yet no apparent effort to enforce this in any way.

The USA Today team found that police made 220,000 fewer drug arrests in the first year after Prop 47 passed, a 9.5% decrease over the previous year.   The options for cops are either to jail people – but there is likely little room to house misdemeanor subjects – or issue a citation, which has no immediate consequences.  The report says, “caught between ineffective jail bookings and toothless citations, cops are increasingly doing neither.”

Further, the downward cycle continues when one considers that the threshold for petty theft to be considered a felony was increased from $500 to $950.  So if addicts who are living on the streets need to steal to support their habit, there are less consequences in that arena as well.

Stephen Johnson, a chief with the LA County Sheriff’s Department describes the current situation: “They’re not being punished, they’re not getting treatment. The net result is victimization for our local communities who see a rise in crime.”

So, what to do? It is time for our elected officials to publicly acknowledge the unintended consequences of a citizen-drafted ballot measure that was not vetted by the state legislative process. Take the necessary steps to pinpoint the loopholes and fix the weaknesses in this law, in the interest of public safety and victim’s rights. Kudos to the two council members (Bernard Parks and Mitch O’Farrell) who voted to oppose Prop 47 back in 2014, but now we ask the full council, the mayor, city attorney, board of supervisors, county sheriff and district attorney to put their heads together to find a way forward for Los Angeles.

Keep the parts that are good (e.g., removing the requirement to report a former felony conviction to facilitate the employability of ex-offenders) and address what is not working. If possession and use is now a misdemeanor, let’s remember that drug dealing is still a felony and the supply of drugs is a death sentence to those on the street. Advocate for the hundreds of millions of dollars that was promised so that services and treatment can be delivered to those on the streets.

We must not acquiesce to the current state as the new normal. Our electeds must find the path back to the Safe Neighborhoods that were promised.

No resources to help this young man homeless and using drugs in Hollywood since 2011. Top photo is from 2015 and the bottom from a few weeks ago. His situation is deteriorating.


Kerry Morrison is executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance.  She serves on the United Way/LA Area Chamber Home For Good Task Force and blogs at @KerryHMorrison

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