It is election season, and here in California that means that it is time for direct democracy. As in every election in California this year we are called on to vote for or against a pallet of good, bad, and indifferent laws. Proposition 47 changes the California code so that certain low level felonies (e.g. petty theft, shoplifting under $950, and small amounts of controlled substances) are reclassified as misdemeanors. This would lead to less or no prison time, and the resulting savings would be redirected to schools and institutions, which work with drug addicts and people trying to leave gangs.
Proposition 47 (which is being called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools) is personal for me. This is not because I will directly and personally benefit from either the reclassification of some felonies as misdemeanors, nor will I gain from the redirection of monies saved to schools and rehabilitation projects. Proposition 47 is personal because California’s judicial system in which all Californians and I are implicated is broken. In our name and by our (in)action the penal system is committing injustices on a daily basis.
There are prisoners languishing in solitary confinement (Segregated Housing Unit) for decades, despite the fact that there is clear evidence that this causes lasting psychological damage. The situation is so bad that a class action suit has been brought on behalf of prisoners incarcerated in the Pelican Bay facility against the governor and other state officials to stop indefinite detention in solitary confinement. The lawsuit only covers inmates who have been segregated for a decade or more. However, research shows that much shorter terms cause irreversible harm.
The Los Angeles County jails are plagued with a culture of abuse and violence according to former Sheriff’s department employees. Instead of addressing the issue, the department attempted to undermine the investigation. In August 2014, six members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department were convicted on charges of obstructing a probe into violence in the Los Angeles County jails.
Michelle Alexander’s recent book, The New Jim Crow, highlights the way that incarceration is a new form of racial control—documenting the disproportionate number of prisoners of color in the nation’s jails and the trace effects of incarceration: loss of voting rights, loss of employment opportunities, etc. This is obviously true in California where, according to a 2012 study of the JFA Institute, black people make up a mere 9.6 percent of the population in Los Angeles, yet they constitute 31 percent of LA County jail prisoners.
Moreover, in a recent study it is shown that there is “a cycle of Black peoples’ limited access to mental health care leading to more severe symptoms, greater criminal involvement, and more frequent arrest. Black people are overrepresented among mentally ill persons who are arrested and incarcerated, suffer higher rates of diagnosed schizophrenia, lower likelihood of receiving the latest psychiatric medications, and greater difficulty in achieving successful community integration.”
All these issues are exacerbated by the severe overcrowding in the California prisons in general, as a result of misguided sentencing policies (such as three strikes) and the “war on drugs”which has run it course. People are being routinely sentenced for possession of small amounts of recreational drugs instead of being redirected to rehabilitative programs.
Here, to my mind, is the heart of Proposition 47:
Require misdemeanors instead of felonies for non-serious, nonviolent crimes like petty theft and drug possession, unless the defendant has prior convictions for specified violent or serious crimes.
What this means in plain English is that if one is caught shoplifting or check kiting, and the amount is less than $950, they will be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The same is true if one is caught with small amounts of controlled substances.
The effect of this is twofold. First, a person who is caught shoplifting will not have ruined their life by being incarcerated and losing the right to vote, and the ability to get a job. (Many non-governmental job applications still have a check off box for “Have you been convicted of a felony?”.) Second, and as far as public policy is concerned this is perhaps more important. We, the people will start to take responsibility in deciding what actually constitutes a “felony,” and what is only a “misdemeanor.” What transgression is a serious enough breach of the social contract to warrant the loss of liberty and all that that entails, and what transgression should be addressed with lesser punishment and education so that the transgressor will become a productive member of society.
There are certain crimes (murder, rape) which, one assumes, all will agree are sufficiently horrendous such that a person convicted of them should be deprived of liberty for a significant period of time. However, there are transgressions which are deemed horrendous crimes because of the specter of the “war on drugs” or the Hobgoblin of “being soft on criminals.” These are not the calculations by which we should run our criminal justice system — a system whose mission should be to rehabilitate transgressors and help repair the pain they have inflicted upon their community.
Proposition 47 is not going to solve all the problems that plague our criminal justice system. It won’t solve most of them. However, Prop 47 is a first step in reasserting our control and responsibility over the penal system. I am voting yes on Prop 47 because it is high time that we stopped using the prison system — and the lives of prisoners — to make political points.
Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.