The Rehabilitation of California’s Ballot Measure

Tue, Oct 21 2014 — Source: The New Yorker

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prisons, which were then at nearly two-hundred-per-cent capacity, were so overcrowded that detaining anyone in them was a form of cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of constitutional rights. The state legislature passed a law, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown, requiring that sentences for certain low-level felonies be served in county jails rather than state prisons; today, the prisons house about a hundred and seventeen thousand inmates, down twenty per cent from this time four years ago. But California prisons still contain many more people than they were built for and more than the courts will allow; the state has been given until 2016 to bring its population down to 137.5 per cent of its capacity.

Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 47, an initiative led by the San Francisco district attorney and a former San Diego police chief, which would try to reach the 137.5 per cent overcapacity threshold by changing certain crimes from felonies, which often result in sentences served in state prisons, into misdemeanors, for which county jail time, county supervision, a fine, or some combination of the three is more common. The crimes covered by Prop. 47 include petty theft, receiving stolen property, writing or forging bad checks, and drug possession, though the reduction wouldn’t apply to those who have previously been convicted of certain serious crimes or are registered sex offenders. The California Budget Project, a left-leaning think tank, has said that the initiative’s passage could allow the state to meet the court-ordered population threshold.

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