Prosecuting attorney Kelly Scott reported that the District Attorney’s Office filed 39 percent fewer felony charges and 9 percent more misdemeanor charges in the six months since Proposition 47 was passed by voters last November. Prop. 47 downgraded six felonies — drug possession and theft of less than $950 being the two big ones — as part of a campaign to keep low-grade offenders out of California’s overcrowded prisons. (The savings generated, estimated to be anywhere from $100 million-$200 million, will be allocated to support mental health and recovery programs.)
Scott’s revelation came at a star-studded forum sponsored earlier in the week by the UC Hastings Alumni Association. Three sitting judges were on the panel as well as Sheriff Bill Brown, Probation Chief Tanja Heitman, and Public Defender Rai Montes de Oca. “We don’t know if this is going to be the new normal,” Scott said.
Six months since adoption, most panelists agreed implementation of the measure has had a profound effect on their workloads. Montes de Oca said the Public Defender’s Office has processed 1,500 petitions by individuals seeking to have prior felony charges reduced to misdemeanors. Although the petitions themselves are only one page long and almost “impossible to fill out wrong,” according to Judge Jean Dandona, the time required to review defendants’ criminal histories to determine whether they qualify for relief under the law is considerable. Sex offenders and those convicted of violent crimes are not eligible.
When Prop. 47 was first proposed, the law enforcement and prosecutorial community was adamantly opposed; the defense bar and civil libertarians were emphatically in favor. Based on comments made by the panelists, little has changed. Sheriff Bill Brown and Scott expressed abiding concern that without the threat of serious prison time, prosecutors will lack “the stick” necessary to coerce addicts into treatment programs. As growing numbers of addicts are released and not treated, Brown and Scott voiced worry about their potential for future criminal behavior. Scott cited new statistics showing the City of Los Angeles has experienced a 12.7 percent increase in crime and a 20 percent hike in violent crime after about 12 years of steady declines in both. She suggested Prop. 47 could have influenced those numbers.
Some defense attorneys in the room dismissed such speculation as scare tactics. Regardless, Scott’s concerns were not borne out by the before-and-after Prop. 47 crime statistics released by Brown. Since Prop. 47 went into effect, Brown noted Santa Barbara’s overall crime rate has dropped by 2 percent and violent crime has dropped by 29 percent. Burglaries, he said, are up by 5 percent, and all drug violations are up by 12 percent.
Brown took issue with those who argue the drop in felony filings and violent crime indicates there’s no need to build a new North County jail. He noted that the early precipitous drop in the jail’s average daily population in the aftermath of Prop. 47 has not only leveled out but has also jumped back to pre-Prop. 47 levels. Seventy percent of the jail inmates, he pointed out, have either not pled or not been sentenced, meaning only 30 percent are actually serving sentences.
Members of PODER, a Latino-rights organization outspokenly critical of what they describe as law enforcement’s disproportionate impact on minority populations, sought to press Brown on why so few inmates in county jail are serving sentences, but they were not called on by the moderator, and their questions were screened out by Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne, an active member of the Hastings Alumni Association. Calonne would explain later he screened questions based on legibility, pertinence, and rationality, adding, “As you might imagine, some people have hostility toward the judiciary and law enforcement.” Calonne stressed, however, none of the questions he screened went to the points PODER reps mentioned afterward. Likewise, Calonne said, he had no idea which questions had been submitted by individuals affiliated with PODER. Calonne was not acting in his capacity as city attorney but rather as a member of the Hastings Alumni Association.
One person who experienced no difficulties getting called on was retired judge George Eskin, a vocal supporter of Prop. 47 who peppered Brown and Scott with questions arguing that recovery rates are exceptionally low for addicts coerced into treatment programs. Eskin argued the DA still can offer many incentives to lure addicts into treatment programs but that these incentives are not taken full advantage of. Brown, while expressing admiration and respect for Eskin, said the former judge was “splitting hairs.”
While some of Eskin’s questions got tangled in the weeds of legal minutia, Judge Dandona was more clear. She took issue with Brown’s argument, stating that even under Prop. 47 those arrested for drug possession are still subject to a year in county jail and that repeat offenders could face as many as three years behind bars. “There’s still a stick,” she insisted.
Probation chief Heitman reported that the number of people charged with crimes signing up for diversion programs — designed to get addicts out of jail and into treatment — has, in fact, gone markedly down. Enrollment in one program dropped from 78 a year ago to 57.
The last question of the night went to Dandona, who was asked what Prop. 47 said about Californians’ attitudes toward the criminal-justice system. “It tells us whatever you want it to tell you,” Dandona replied. On one hand, she said, it could mean, “The people of this state have decided we need a more compassionate, more intelligent approach.” On the other, it could also mean voters were moved by economic considerations, “that it’s cheaper to provide services than to put [offenders] in prison.” Personally, Dandona said, she thought Prop. 47 said both.