Count Joyce Dudley, Santa Barbara’s chief prosecutor, among the California law enforcement officers opposing Proposition 47, a liberal initiative to reduce incarceration rates by treating some drug and other low-level felony crimes as misdemeanors.
As a political matter, Dudley’s opposition is significant because she is among the most progressive district attorneys in the state, and often favors prevention and treatment programs as alternatives to hard-line, lock ‘em up criminal justice policies.
In an email interview, however, Dudley said that after studying the several thousand words of the complex initiative, she’s concluded that Prop. 47 is “just not good for public safety or justice.”
CALIFORNIA HARBINGER: Prop. 47 has drawn national attention, and the voters’ decision on it will be viewed as a harbinger of whether attitudes on crime are shifting, after decades during which politicians and voters toughened sentences for countless offenses, including many drug crimes. This has vastly increased prison populations in many states, resulting in a variety of unintended fiscal and legal consequences.
“The referendum on Nov. 4 is part of a national reappraisal of mass incarceration,” reporter Erik Eckholm wrote in the New York Times this week. “To its advocates … the measure injects a dose of common sense into a justice system gone off the tracks.”
If passed, Prop. 47 would make important changes in California law and sentencing procedures, at a time when about 220,000 felons a year are convicted. A detailed assessment by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office highlights several key features of the measure, which would:
• Reduce from felonies to misdemeanors certain “non-serious and non-violent property and drug offenses,” including theft of property worth less than $950 and possession of illegal drugs for personal use, such as cocaine and heroin; it would not change the law for possession of small amounts of marijuana, already considered either a misdemeanor or a less serious legal “infraction.”
• Permit some felons currently serving state prison terms for such offenses to have their sentences reduced.
• Prohibit reduction from felonies to misdemeanors for perpetrators who have committed not only offenses covered by Prop. 47 but also “certain severe crimes,” including murder, sex, and gun offenses.
• Direct the state’s savings from these changes — estimated in the “low hundreds of millions” of dollars annually — into truancy and drop-out programs for public school students, victims services organizations, and mental health and drug abuse treatment services designed to keep people out of prison and jail.
“Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked,” George Gascón, San Francisco’s liberal district attorney and police chief, one of Prop. 47’s chief sponsors, told the Times. “Incarceration doesn’t fix the problem.”
A strange bedfellow alliance including the former president of Facebook, state Senate President Darrell Steinberg, lefty billionaire George Soros, several advocates for crime victims, and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian philanthropist, who views incarceration as “a moral and ethical issue,” backs the initiative.
COPS AND COURTS: In opposing Prop. 47, Santa Barbara’s Dudley stands with nearly every key law enforcement officer and organization in the state, including the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault; California District Attorneys Association, California Fraternal Order of Police, California Peace Officers Association, California Police Chiefs Association, and California State Sheriffs’ Association.
Most cops and prosecutors who have publicly pronounced on the measure believe Prop. 47 is flawed in at least three key ways:
Wobblers. Under current law, several crimes to be automatically reduced to misdemeanors if Prop. 47 passes currently are considered “wobblers.”
This means that prosecutors and judges have discretion in whether they charge or sentence those accused or convicted of offenses contained in the initiative as misdemeanors or felonies. This flexibility, as described by the Legislative Analyst, takes into account “the details of the crime and the criminal history of the offender.” Prop. 47, would eliminate this discretionary power and instead require the offenses in the initiative to be considered misdemeanors.
Loopholes. Opponents note that Prop. 47 as written could result in certain crimes now often charged as felonies — possession of date rape drugs and possession of a gun worth less than $950, for example — automatically to be handled as misdemeanors.
Early release. Supporters and opponents characterize in vastly different ways the impact of Prop. 47’s provisions to allow convicted felons to have their sentences reduced; many law enforcement officials argue that judges would be powerless to prevent the release of as many as 10,000 felons now in state prison.
“I am not in favor of Proposition 47 because, among other things, it takes discretion away from judges and prosecutors to identify and prosecute recidivists more seriously,” DA Dudley told The Santa Barbara Independent. “It also causes more former felony offenses to result in misdemeanor outcomes which currently (for the most part) means: no jail, no mandated programs, and no probation supervision.”
Neither either side has yet aired ads. It now leads 62 percent to 20 percent among likely voters, according to a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, in which polltakers read a summary of the initiative to respondents.
DIAPER DADS: Governor Jerry Brown in recent weeks repeatedly made national news by acting on landmark laws affecting high-profile matters from smart phones and sexual assault to gun control and plastic bags.
With much less ado, however, Brown brushed aside a more practical and down-to-earth concern of many average persons of the male persuasion: frazzled dads of the 1 million or so babies and toddlers who struggle with the day-to-day heartbreak of potty training.
With a swipe of his pen, Brown vetoed two bills, which passed the Legislature with near-unanimous support, to require businesses like restaurants and theaters to provide at least one diaper-changing table accessible to men.
The biggest knock on Brown is that he’s spent his whole life in elected office, a political prince catered to by legions of acolytes and staffers, who’s never had to deal with the real world stresses. He erased any doubt about this with his rarefied veto message of the two bills, by Democratic senators Lois Wolk of Davis and Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens:
“At a time when so many have raised concerns about the number of regulations in California, I believe it would be more prudent to leave the matter of diaper changing stations to the private sector. Already, many businesses have taken steps to accommodate their customers in this regard.”
Yeah, right, governor, you tell a toddler carrying a full load to wait until the private sector gets around to providing a space for fathers to clean them up.
“Changing your baby on a bathroom floor is never fun and grosses me out,” posted one dad on a Reddit forum that drew 500 responses to Brown’s action. “I’ve actually gotten pretty decent at changing him while he stands because of the lack of changing stations in men’s restrooms though. I used to just go out to the car but that shouldn’t be the best option because then I have to go the restroom anyway to wash my hands.”
Memo to Jesuit Brown: Semper in excretia sumus solim profundum variat.