L.A. County Gives Early Snapshot of Prop. 47’s “Profound Impacts”

Thursday, February 26, 2015
(photo: Hans Neleman, Getty Images)

When the independent state Legislative Analyst’s Office analyzed the effect newly-minted Proposition 47 would have on the budget, it concluded the law would “significantly reduce criminal justice workload for counties, particularly by freeing up beds in county jails and resources in probation departments.”   

Los Angeles County has put some numbers to that generality, according to the L.A. Times, in a draft report released this week. Prop. 47, coupled with the 2011 AB 109 public safety realignment, transferred significant responsibility for inmates and parolees from the state to counties, resulting in “profound impacts.”

The law, which took effect in November after passage of the ballot measure, reduces some low-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. A primary motivation behind Prop. 47 was to clear space in county jails for some truly nasty offenders who would otherwise be in prison, and keep them locked up for their entire sentence.

The report found that narcotics arrests in the county dropped 38% during the two-month period after the law passed, compared to the same time frame a year earlier. The jail population dropped 15%, and would have dropped more if the Sheriff hadn’t taken advantage of the situation to hang on to the worst offenders longer.

High-risk inmates benefited from overcrowded county jails, and up until Prop. 47 passed, were serving about 40% of their sentences before release. They serve 100% now. Women were only serving 10% of their sentences; they now serve 90%. Men also serve 90%.

Just before Prop. 47 passed, 33 of the state’s 58 counties—two–thirds of the state’s jail population—were releasing inmates early because of overcrowding. Much of that was a consequence of AB 109 realignment.

The county has no idea if these changes are sustainable. The sheriff, prosecutors and the courts are just now dealing with Prop. 47 cases, resentencing thousands of inmates who qualify, and applying the guidelines to new ones. An estimated 60,000 Prop. 47 filings for reclassification have been received by the court.

The report makes no attempt to assess the long-term consequences of the law in terms of planning future jail construction.

One unintended, but not unexpected, consequence of Prop. 47 is a drop in the number of defendants who sign up for drug treatment programs. Without the threat of doing felony time for their infractions, enrollment dropped from 110 to 53. “Misdemeanants may decide to accept brief jail time or less demanding conditions rather than intensive and lengthy commitments for substance use disorder treatment,” the county report said.

Ditto for those who would have participated in mental health diversion and rehabilitation programs pre-Prop. 47. The county’s Department of Mental Health (DMH) anticipates that in the long run: there will higher rates of "recidivism for the mentally ill population" within the justice system, more mental health clinicians will have to patrol with law enforcement; and 400 felony inmates who are incompetent to stand trial may make a case for release. “Many of these individuals may require acute inpatient services, conservatorship proceedings and treatment” in mental institutions,” the report said.   

The state Analyst’s report predicted Prop. 47 would reduce county workloads and save them boatloads of money. It would be up to localities to determine if the windfall is spent on improvements to the criminal justice system or just winds up in county coffers. The L.A. County report does not address where the money goes.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Prop. 47 Report Finds Fewer Drug Arrests, Less Crowding in Jails (by Abby Sewell and Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times)

The 2015-16 Budget: Implementation of Proposition 47 (Legislative Analyst’s Office)

County Jail Populations Across California Dip After Prop 47 (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

Unintended, but Not Unknown, Consequence of Prop. 47: Less Drug Treatment (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Preliminary Assessment of Proposition 47 Implementation (Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office)

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