ACLU: Prop. 47 Jail Reforms “Not Yet the New Normal” for a Lot of Locales

Thursday, November 19, 2015

On the one-year anniversary of Proposition 47’s passage, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found counties and law enforcement agencies hadn’t quite got the hang of the law that reclassified six low-level drug and property felonies as misdemeanors.

“Prop 47 is now the law, but it is not yet the new normal,” the ACLU concluded in its report (pdf) released last week, “Changing Gears: California’s Shift to Smart Justice.” The ACLU was a major supporter of Prop. 47, which won 60% of the vote in November 2014.

The law had the two-pronged effect of keeping a lot of low-level offenders, often drug users, out of prison, where the big boys play, and helping the state comply with federal judicial orders to reduce inhumane overcrowding in correctional institutions. Critics fear crime will go up.

The ACLU looked at 40 of the state’s 58 counties, where most of the affected convicted criminals reside, and found a disparate collection of jail policies, police rules and rehabilitation programs.

“There has been a disappointing level of resistance from some in law enforcement,” the report said. Bad behavior is accompanied by bad-mouthing of the law, “falsely claiming that they are no longer able to arrest people for petty crime or that a misdemeanor is not a ‘real’ penalty. These statements are both untrue and counterproductive.”

The ACLU also said nay-sayers are waving around local crime statistics that cast Prop. 47 in a bad light, arguing, “It’s way too early to assess 2015 crime rates in California at all, let alone potential causes.”

Some agencies have prioritized low-level crimes and others have gone in the opposite direction. As a result, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department reported low-level arrests went up 77%, while the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was down 43%. Los Angeles County was in between, up 10%. Normal crime fluctuations could explain some of those changes.

Harder to figure out were the 260 arrests for methamphetamine by the L.A. County Sheriff’s office in the first half of 2015, compared to seven in the first half of 2014. In contrast, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department had 62 arrests for the same crime in the first half of 2015, compared to 172 in the first half of 2014.

“Some police departments, if they determine these misdemeanors are not going to be handled as seriously . . . could determine they won’t make as many arrests and bookings for relatively minor criminal infractions,” Michael Brennan, clinical law professor at the USC Gould School of Law, told the Los Angeles Daily News.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Prop. 47 Arrests Uneven, Wide Differences in How Police Are Adapting to Law, ACLU Says (by Brenda Gazzar, Los Angeles Daily News)

Prop. 47 Implementation Differs Around State, ACLU Finds (by Marisa Lagos, KQED)

ACLU Faults California Law Enforcement Response to Prop. 47 (by Ben Poston, Los Angeles Times)

L.A. County Gives Early Snapshot of Prop. 47’s “Profound Impacts” (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Changing Gears: California’s Shift to Smart Justice (by Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, American Civil Liberties Union) (pdf)

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