Last year, California voters passed Proposition 47, which mandate downgrades of certain drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. It also requires misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging/writing bad checks when the amount involved is $950 or less. Qualified defendants who have served their time for, and are off probation or parole, may apply to be resentenced for a misdemeanor. Defendants currently serving time or on probation can also apply, and may be entitled to release.
Prop. 47 also included language promising that the state and county savings in the “high hundreds of millions of dollars annually” from reduced incarceration costs would be spent on “school truancy and dropout prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victim services.”
The allure of Prop. 47, when tidily packaged in this manner, is understandable because it seemingly offered a fiscally balanced and rehabilitative approach to the very real issue of an escalating prison population and the costs of housing inmates. Approximately one year into its implementation – with more than 3,700 inmates processed for reduced sentences and released from state prison – the full ramifications of Prop. 47 are coming into focus, and none of them bodes well for the safety and security of our communities. While Prop. 47 has reduced the prison population, it has also had some far-reaching and major unintended consequences that, ironically, reduce the prospects for rehabilitative treatments and undermine the effectiveness of proven crime-fighting tactics.
Under California law, law enforcement agencies are permitted to take DNA samples only from felony suspects. With the implementation of Prop. 47, the DNA collected for a felony crime – now reduced to a misdemeanor – could be destroyed or set aside. In the event that the DNA is not destroyed and does show up as a match for a subsequent crime, the legality of using this DNA would certainly come into question. Based on the number of prospective offenders who qualify for a crime reduction, the number of DNA samples that go untested and/or destroyed could run into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Any one of these could be a match for a murder or rape case, but because of Prop. 47, the DNA match may never happen.