Resentencing to begin for some of the state’s non-violent offenders
Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, founder of local nonprofit Barrios Unidos, hopes a new state measure will help nonviolent offenders across California—some of whom he has known personally—leave incarceration and get on with their lives.
“Whether it’s 10 or thousands, we scratched at the surface,” says Alejandrez, a Vietnam veteran and activist of 30 years.
Proposition 47 reduces the severity of certain crimes, and will allow many convicts to have their sentences reduced. Also called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, the measure passed with 59 percent voter support at the polls on Nov. 5. It reduces sentence time for many crimes involving drug possession, forgery, fraud, shoplifting, and theft—from felonies to misdemeanors. But many police officials wonder how the measure will affect low-level crime.
“The idea behind this is not to have overcrowded prisons, and to allow people to seek rehabilitation,” says Scotts Valley Police Chief John Weiss. “Our only concern is it’s such a departure from the way it was in the past. There are many violations that have been moved from a felony to a misdemeanor. What will this mean in terms of criminality? Are we going to see more crimes, now that the penalties are less?”
Local law enforcement officials from the cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola, and Watsonville have expressed concerns in the past month about the impact of Proposition 47—concern, for example, that the possession of a stolen handgun valued at less than $950 will no longer be considered a felony.
Statewide, reception from public officials has been mixed. Over the hill, for instance, Proposition 47 garnered opposition from the San Jose City Council, while Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen endorsed it.
To some extent, Proposition 47 was actually developed from a law enforcement perspective. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón drafted it with Bill Lansdowne, a retired San Diego police chief, in an attempt to prioritize violent crimes over nonviolent ones.
Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), says the basic framework of resentencing means that not all potentially eligible inmates will be released at the same time.
“Inmates are eligible to petition the court for resentencing,” Callison explains. “It is up to the inmate to petition the court for a request for resentencing, and then it is up to the court whether or not to see the case.”
Callison says there are approximately 5,350 people within the CDCR who could potentially be eligible for resentencing through Proposition 47. Jail inmates are also eligible to petition the courts, including 150 in Santa Cruz County Jail.
If an individual has prior convictions of a violent or sexual nature, that person is denied eligibility for resentencing. Marijuana was left untouched by Proposition 47, and cultivating the plant remains a felony.
“It’s much like the prison realignment of 2011,” says Santa Cruz County Sheriff-elect Jim Hart. “We’re trying to get the lower-level offenders out of the prison system.”
But unlike realignment, Proposition 47—which took effect immediately—is retroactive. That might mean easier access to jobs for millions upon release.
How resentencing will shake out in local courts remains to be seen.
“I think there will be a lot going on in the courts behind Prop 47,” Hart says. “There could be a huge backlog.”
Although some inmates have been released under Proposition 47 already, none have been released locally so far.
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan group, estimates 40,000 convictions will be affected annually by Proposition 47, resulting in some inmates moving from state to county prisons, reducing the overcrowded state prison rate, and potentially saving taxpayers anywhere from $100 to $300 million yearly.
That money saved will go back into California schools, along with mental health programs, rehabilitation for drug users, and programs to integrate inmates and previously incarcerated individuals back into society. Such programs have not yet been created.
When it comes to the future of those services, even some local prison reformers are only cautiously optimistic. Tash Nguyen of the local prison abolitionist group Sin Barras will be watching closely to see how the programs pan out.
“The thing that stands out for us,” Nguyen says, “is that 65 percent of this money will go to the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which was created out of realignment. This group, which is currently dominated by law enforcement, is responsible for doling out grants to public agencies for mental health, and is the same group responsible for jail expansions.”
The BSCC will meet for the first time concerning its responsibilities under Proposition 47 in February 2015.
Local attorney John W. Thornton says the board will need to prioritize drug treatment. “In order for 47 to work, there needs to be funding for drug programs,” Thornton says.
With 15 years of private practice following seven years as a local public defender, Thornton remains optimistic that the new law is a step in the right direction.
“We’ve had some wonderful success stories with people who’ve gone into programs, funded by the government, and have done remarkably well,” he says. “Our criminal courts have been overcrowded for years. It would be nice to spend some time on real crimes.”
Alejandrez of Barrios Unidos also wants to be optimistic about Proposition 47. But he says that in order for it to be a success, there will need to be buy-in throughout the community, not just in the courtroom.
“How the communities respond to the individuals will make a big difference,” Alejandrez says. “[The released] also have to take responsibility to make this work. If law enforcement carries this out [exclusively], then it probably won’t work. I think it needs to be more community-based: more treatment, more jobs, more housing and more spiritual work to help transition these people back into the community.”
PHOTO: Barrios Unidos founder Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez (center) gathers with fellow employees and community members after the holiday parade in downtown Santa Cruz. CHIP SCHEUER