On November 4, California voters have a unique opportunity to tell our elected officials that we expect them to be “smart on crime,” not merely “tough on crime.” Specifically, voters can pass Proposition 47 to reduce the excessive cost of prosecuting minor, nonviolent crimes as felonies, and invest the substantial savings into education, job training, and the treatment of mental illness and drug addiction.
I was a prosecutor and a defense attorney for 35 years before serving a decade as a judge on the Santa Barbara County Superior Court. In these experiences, I have seen how far we have strayed from sound criminal sentencing policies.
This is especially true of low-level offenses, many of which can be prosecuted as either a felony or a misdemeanor. District attorneys decide which classification to file, and a judge has no authority to influence their decision. DAs routinely file these cases as felonies, even though they are likely to conclude with a misdemeanor disposition.
The end result of this costly process, a misdemeanor conviction, does not justify the financial expense and the valuable resources invested by police, prosecutors, and the courts, and the ability to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate serious and violent crimes is compromised.
And even if a felony conviction stands for these nonviolent offenses, the “felon” label will serve as an impediment to future employment and education opportunities, not to mention the obvious loss of employment and interruption of education and family life while someone is on trial or incarcerated.
Proposition 47 will return reason to sentencing practices. It will reclassify six nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. Examples include drug possession for personal use and property crimes of $950 or less.
Prison commitments for those convicted of these offenses will be eliminated, and this will help prioritize limited incarceration resources for people who commit serious and violent offense and truly belong behind bars. Because prisons are expensive, the substantial financial savings will be invested in education and drug treatment, a much more effective use of taxpayer dollars for holding nonviolent offenders accountable.
Proposition 47 will reduce the number of “felony” defendants who remain in the county jail awaiting trial and the number of “felony” cases scheduled for preliminary hearings, many of which languish for more than six months and require multiple, costly court appearances by attorneys and law enforcement witnesses.
Proposition 47 does not present a threat to public safety. It specifically excludes those convicted of a sex offense or anyone with a prior violent felony conviction for crimes such as rape, murder and child molestation. It also provides the safeguard of a judge deciding whether anyone currently incarcerated for one of these six offenses is eligible for resentencing.
All these benefits and safeguards have not stopped some opposing voices from claiming that the sky will fall if Proposition 47 passes. I am disappointed by their distortion of the initiative, but I have seen such tactics when someone attempts to change the status quo.
But the status quo has not been working in California. We have spent too much money sending too many people to prison for things that can be address less expensively and more effectively.
In short, Proposition 47 represents sound public policy and more efficient and effective use of strained public resources. It is a unique opportunity for voters to stand up for public safety and fiscal security, so I encourage my fellow Californians to take advantage and vote “yes” on Proposition 47.
George Eskin is a former judge of the Santa Barbara County Superior Court and a former assistant district attorney in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.