Prop 47 One Year In: New Stanford Report Highlights Incarceration Drop and Low Recidivism

Michael Romano 1
Professor Michael Romano

The Stanford Justice Advocacy Project (formerly the Three Strikes Project) helped draft Proposition 47, which converted many nonviolent offenses, such as drug and property offenses, from felonies to misdemeanors. It also required that the money saved as a result of the measure be spent on “school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, mental health and drug abuse treatment, and other programs designed to keep offenders out of prison and jail.” It was passed by California voters and enacted in November 2014.

A new report by the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, “Proposition 47 Progress Report: Year One Implementation,” compiles and analyzes data made available by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Department of Finance, the Department of Justice, the Board of State Community Corrections and the Legislative Analyst’s office.

In this Q&A, the Justice Advocacy Project’s director, Michael Romano, discusses the proposition—and answers criticism of it.

The upshot of the report is: Proposition 47 is working. Can you highlight how?
Romano: There are several highlights—really important improvements over the last year. A big one is the number of people incarcerated in California’s prisons and jail—it has decreased by approximately 13,000 inmates. And recidivism is very low for Proposition 47—less than 5 percent of state prisoners released under Proposition 47 have been convicted of new crimes and returned to prison. Any increase in crime throughout the state really should not be attributed to those released from prison under Proposition 47. And since the enactment of Proposition 47, early releases from county jails due to overcrowding are down by approximately 35 percent statewide.

What about financial savings to the state?
Romano: Financial savings to the state and county governments as a result of reduced incarceration costs are expected to total more than $300 million annually. An estimated $150 million in savings will be redirected to the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund to treat mental illness and drug addiction, reduce truancy, expand diversion and support crime victims.

How has the Justice Advocacy Project been involved in Proposition 47 since it passed last year?
Romano: We, the staff here and our law students, are litigating some of the issues regarding implementation of Proposition 47, and also representing certain inmates who remain in prison for Proposition 47 sentences.

When will money be directed to the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund? And will the Advocacy Project be involved in that important effort?
Romano: The department of finance has to make its calculations by the end of the fiscal year—the end of July 2016 with money allocated by the end of August. Then I believe it will be put in the next budget.

I don’t know yet how or if we’ll work with that initiative, but it is conceivable that we will. We are in a position to help with that effort given our experience of building reentry programs for people released under the Three Strikes reform.

Talk about recidivism, and how the Justice Advocacy Project is helping to keep the numbers down, strikingly so.
Romano: The challenges facing people just out of prison are enormous. We recognize this reality. So, working with our Three Strikes clients, we’ve built a statewide network of the premier re-entry services, which provide housing, sobriety support, mental health treatment, peer support, and employment assistance. We work to make sure that recently released individuals can go directly to these re-entry programs to help them get their feet back on the ground so that they don’t become another reoffender. And we’re doing the same with Proposition 47 clients.

News about rising crime rates has been getting a lot of attention lately. Is that the case in California—is crime going up here?
Romano: LA is reporting a rise in crime; other counties are reporting a decrease in crime. But there’s no state-wide crime data available yet. There is no evidence connecting Proposition 47 with crime rates. However, as I said, the data really isn’t in yet.

Where is that coming from?

Romano: I think the LA police department, which is obviously the biggest and most important in the state. I don’t doubt that their data is correct, but data provided by other counties and other police departments shows that crime in those counties is going down. Now, how each county reports crime and what they each consider to be property crime, versus violent crime, it’s all different, county to county, so it’s very difficult to say apples to apples.

Is there a correlation between a rise in crime, if there really is one, and Proposition 47?
Romano: There is no evidence that there’s a correlation. The correlation that is suggested by some law enforcement officials, frankly, does not square with the available data and, certainly, the data that has been released by state agencies—including the Department of Corrections, which indicates that those who’ve been released early under Proposition 47 are not responsible for the crimes being reported.

There have been several op-eds in the LA Times about Proposition 47, some critical of it. Marc Debbaudt, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, said in one that criminal history is no longer taken into account for sentencing since passage of Proposition 47, even a history of serious crime, such as armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, which is contrary to what I’ve read about Proposition 47. Is he just wrong about that?
Romano: No. He’s right in that if you were convicted of an assault in the past and sentenced and served your time and then released, you start with a clean slate. If you commit a drug crime, then you are sentenced for that new drug crime. The punishment for that new crime has reduced from a presumptive sentence of 18 months to a presumptive sentence of one year.

There’s still likely jail time.
Romano: There’s a significant difference in that they’ve reduced it from a felony to a misdemeanor, which is non-trivial, especially in terms of future employment prospects, housing prospects and other government benefits. The sentences are shorter, from a presumptive sentence of 18 months to a presumptive sentence of one year—it’s 50 per cent lower, so I don’t want to minimize that.

But they’re still likely “off the streets?”
Romano: Right. They could still get felony probation and not go away, or misdemeanor probation and not go away. But that has nothing to do with Proposition 47. That’s up to the judges and prosecutors.

Can you talk about how Proposition 47 has improved public safety?
Romano: What the law enforcement officials who are criticizing Proposition 47 don’t acknowledge is that they release, on average, almost 10,000 people from county jails every month, due to overcrowding prior to Proposition 47. Proposition 47 has reduced overcrowding and reduced the number of people who are released early from the county jail. That’s in our report. It’s down about 35 per cent. In addition, the savings generated by Proposition 47—hundreds of millions of dollars over time—will be redirected to drug courts, drug treatment, mental health services, and efforts to reduce truancy, all of which will have long term positive impacts on public safety.

So that increases their capacity, and so improves public safety?
Romano: Yes.

We need to look to the data—
Romano: There has been a lot of misinformation spread about Proposition 47 and I hope that this report helps paint a realistic picture based on real data.

The initiative was supported by key law enforcement individuals including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and William Lansdowne, former San Diego police chief. And Derek Byers, President of the California Public Defender’s Association, has voiced optimism about the data highlighted in your report.
Romano: Overwhelmingly, the people who have spoken up against Proposition 47 are folks in law enforcement who opposed it in the first place, who are now apparently seeing some rise in crime in their jurisdiction and, rather than looking to their own policies or other outside trends, are blaming concerns about public safety on Proposition 47, without any empirical data to support those claims.

Thank you Mike.
Romano: Thank you.