DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Last November, Californians overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47. Its backers touted the move to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders and keep them out of prison. It garnered endorsements from prominent supporters including the Los Angeles Times, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.


Several months later, as it is being implemented, Prop 47 is provoking uncertainty. Some law enforcement members and community advocates worry about the effect that the measure will have on Skid Row, and fear that it could lead to an increase in crime and the homeless population.

Proposition 47 aims to reduce California’s staggering state prison population by reclassifying six current felony crimes as misdemeanors, effectively transferring the cases to the county level. The measure also mandates that money saved from reduced incarcerations go toward funding mental health and substance abuse treatment services, crime prevention programs and victim services.

Heidi Rummel, a former federal prosecutor, directing attorney for the Post-Conviction Justice Project and a clinical professor of law at the University of Southern California, sees Prop 47 as a step toward a more “humane” justice system that addresses offenders’ traumas, and doesn’t just punish their crimes.

“Jail and prison are terrible places to help people reform. Historically, because of the lack of other options, it’s all we’ve used to take unpredictable people off the street,” she said. “With [Prop 47], we’re putting significant amounts of money that would normally go toward incarceration to treatment of the factors that caused the criminality in the first place.”

While the treatment aspect is widely lauded, some in Downtown see similarities between Prop 47 and AB 109, a 2011 measure passed by voters that mandates that non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offenders serve their time in county jail, not state prison, which often means a reduction in sentence length. When it passed, many worried that people who were released early from jail and who lacked a safety net would flock to Skid Row because of its plethora of services and housing, as well as drugs.

Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Mike Oreb, who oversees Central Division, said he has similar concerns this time around.

“We saw an increase in the Skid Row population after AB 109, which may be related to the policy,” he said. “All the pieces to support someone after release, like [housing] and treatment programs, are in the Skid Row area, so we could see more of an impact here than in other communities.” 

Felonies and Misdemeanors

Prop 47 reclassifies six potential felonies as misdemeanors: grand theft, shoplifting and receiving stolen property of up to $950; writing bad checks; check forgery; and simple drug possession, depending on the drug and the amount.

These crimes won’t always be misdemeanors — certain qualifications could allow a judge to deem an offense a felony — but a significant number of cases statewide will be impacted. In 2012, there were 188,790 charges in those six categories; 40,000, or 21.2% of them, would have been affected by Prop 47, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. 

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, would account for one-quarter of all offenders eligible for Prop 47 resentencing based on the 2012 figures, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. 

Many Prop 47 supporters say that the goal to reduce the state’s prison population and recidivism rate could improve public safety in the long run. Some experts say shorter incarceration periods in local jails, with access to treatment and counseling, offers a better chance at long-term rehabilitation than lengthy prison stints. 

Prop 47’s most significant tool, then, may be how it uses the money saved from incarcerating people in state prison. The law mandates that 65% of the money goes toward mental health and drug addiction treatment services, 25% to prevention programs in schools and 10% to victim services. Savings on the state level could range between $100 million and $300 million annually, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. The money would be distributed via a competitive grant process to county public agencies. 

Meanwhile, local jails could save between $400 million and $700 million statewide, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Whether Prop 47 succeeds depends on the details, Rummel stated. The money saved needs to be used for effective treatment programs with strong incentives for offenders, she said. 

That’s a concern for Rev. Andy Bales, head of the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row. He fears that the county’s infrastructure for post-release services, particularly in Skid Row, won’t be ready for an influx of offenders who need support. 

“Any sending of people from prison or anywhere else into Skid Row is a disaster. What I’m afraid is that many people are going to be released and will not have services set up,” Bales said. “Hopefully, they won’t commit another crime, but if they have nowhere to turn to, they may experience homelessness, which probably beats prison, but not by much.”

LAPD Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph, who has patrolled Skid Row for 17 years, expects worse. People tell him on the street that they’re not afraid of committing minor crimes because of AB 109 and now Prop 47, he said. He sees familiar faces go to jail and return to Skid Row days later, and says that recidivism on Skid Row is as bad as ever.

“Now these individuals are getting released without jobs, with bridges burned, without any place to go. So they’re going to commit crimes again and who’s gonna feel the brunt? The Skid Row community,” Joseph said. 

Question of Incentive

Many in law enforcement have been critical of how Prop 47 affects the incentives to seek treatment. With felony cases, a judge can offer a deal: If the offender submits to treatment and remains under probation supervision, he or she can avoid a lengthy sentence. That type of incentive is weakened in misdemeanor cases. 

In addition, with felony cases, county probation is responsible for regular monitoring of offenders and referrals for housing and treatment services, said Margarita Perez, assistant chief at the L.A. County Probation Department. Misdemeanor cases are often given “summary probation,” which hands oversight to the courts. That means less supervision and less guidance toward rehabilitation, she said. 

“That’s why I see a potential for increased crime with this,” Perez said. “If these individuals aren’t under our jurisdiction, there’s going to be a number of people who aren’t taking advantage of services with our help and funding.” 

Some organizations, such as Skid Row’s Chrysalis, a job-training program for the formerly homeless, have taken outreach on Prop 47 into their own hands. Many people aren’t even aware they can apply for resentencing under the new law, and that the deadline to do so is November 2017, said Michael Graff-Weisner, vice president of programs and government relations at Chrysalis. 

He added that outreach is all the more important because of one way Prop 47 can change lives: by making finding a job easier. Offenders who have to disclose a past felony to potential employers have a more difficult time getting work, Graff-Weisner noted. People with misdemeanor convictions, on the other hand, don’t have to reveal that on a job application.

“There’s so much research that shows that being secure with employment has a very positive effect on your likelihood to go back to jail or prison,” he said. “Obviously, there’s the income a job gives you. But it also can be a force to connect you to a community, to individuals who aren’t pulling you back to bad behaviors.”

As Joseph points out, Skid Row is full of bad behaviors that could affect a recently released offender, whether it’s the day-to-day aggression on the street or drug dealers waiting outside treatment offices. Joseph, Bales and others say that decentralization of city and county services — moving some of them from Downtown to other communities — is the only way to improve the congestion and severity of homelessness. 

Another thing that could help, they and others say, is more money. 

“Unfortunately, the statute didn’t mandate that local savings go into the fund. A big percentage of the dollars saved from incarceration could also come from county jails,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that supported Prop 47. “As a society, we’ve chosen to not invest in services, but rather in prisons and jails.”

The shift away from that is happening nationwide: Almost 20 states have passed measures to reform sentencing and reduce prison populations. Initial reports from states such as Arkansas, Georgia and Texas indicate that the crime rate can drop after such reforms take effect. But California is the largest state to move on such a sweeping measure.

“Prop 47 is having a much greater impact than just on the prison population,” Lyman said. “It’s rattling the cages of prison reform in no way that any policy has done in California before.”

It will be years before the effects of Prop 47 can be judged, but most agree that the first community to feel its effects, whatever they may be, will be Skid Row.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015