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Douglas Capraro Douglas Capraro

California’s Proposition 47 Is Set to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor

A ballot measure to be voted on next month would make California's criminal justice system far more humane—including for people caught in possession of heroin or cocaine.

7 Substance

A measure to be voted on in California next month could transform the criminal justice system in a state known for the notoriously harsh three-strikes law it implemented 20 years ago.

Proposition 47 will be put to voters on the November 4 ballot. If approved, it will reduce the criminal classification of most “non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” to misdemeanors. So a brief stay in jail, rather than a state penitentiary sentence, would be the maximum punishment for low-level theft, forgery and property crimes—and for the possession of most illegal drugs for personal use, including heroin and cocaine.

California’s three-strikes law has seen repeat felons sentenced to 25-years-to-life—even if their “third strike” is a minor crime. The law has caused inhumane overcrowding in state prisons, with enormous human and financial costs. Proposition 47, supporters say, would save the state several hundred million dollars a year, which could be reallocated to services like mental health and addiction treatment.

Proponents refer to the initiative as “The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne are prominent among them, and an evangelical conservative businessman named B. Wayne Hughes Jr. has even donated $1 million to the cause. Most Californians seem to agree with him: A poll last month found 62% in favor, with only 25% against.

But some law enforcement officials are vigorously opposing the measure. According to the California Police Chiefs Association, Proposition 47 “has unreasonably limited the scope of what is considered a risk to society,” to sanction the release of “many potentially violent individuals.” San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman says that “Virtually all of law enforcement is opposed,” to the bill: “It’s virtually a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

However, Prop. 47 does require a “thorough review” of an individual’s risk assessment and criminal history as part of the sentencing process. And plenty of law enforcement officers are right behind it.

Lt. Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.), who served in California for 20 years and is now a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, tells us: ”The California Police Chiefs Association has often used fear mongering to fuel their opposition to smart-on-crime legislative efforts in Sacramento. These kind of scare tactics are endemic in law enforcement and are symptomatic of a larger issue, fueled by a groupthink mentality that focuses on maintaining political power versus developing policy based on science and research. All research points to the fact that Californians can support sentencing reform with no impact on crime.”

Goldstein, who is also a Substance.com contributor, continues, “There are many reasons law enforcement and Californians do support this initiative, which include investing in prevention efforts for at-risk students and adequately funding mental health and drug treatment services that have historically been proven to reduce crime and enhance public safety.”