California’s Criminal-Justice Reformers

California’s Bad Example for
Criminal-Justice Reformers

Prop. 47, which kept petty criminals out of jail, stands as a warning about unintended consequences.

Allysia Finley, The Wall Street Journal

The vagrancy endemic to San Francisco seems to be spreading to the Golden State’s suburbs. Blame it, at least in part, on Californians’ well-intentioned efforts to reform the criminal-justice system by releasing low-level offenders from jail.

Encampments with an estimated 500 homeless have formed in the dry Santa Ana riverbed by Angel Stadium and the city’s civic center. Last month the Santa Ana City Council declared a public-health crisis due to dangerous and unsanitary conditions, such as used syringes and human feces.

Many transients visit the library to charge their smartphones and shoot up with drugs. After increasing reports of everything from indecent exposure to vandalism, the library underwent renovations this summer to enable workers to more closely monitor “patrons.”

Property crime in Orange County has surged, too: It was up 26% in Santa Ana, 29% in Orange and 43% in Garden Grove between 2014 and 2015, according to the FBI. Nationwide, the property crime rate dropped 3.4% over that same period.

While perhaps most striking in well-manicured Orange County, these trends hold across the state. Homelessness in California rose by 2.6%, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Los Angeles the jump was 20%. Meanwhile, the property-crime rate statewide climbed 7.2% last year. The value of that stolen property increased 13.2%—$287 million—according to the state attorney general’s office.

380993_1_One aggravating factor is Prop. 47, a ballot initiative approved by California voters in 2014. It downgraded from felony to misdemeanor a group of “nonserious, nonviolent crimes”—e.g., drug possession or theft of less than $950. Prisoners already convicted on such charges were made eligible for early release.

The initiative was sold to voters as necessary criminal-justice reform. In 2009 California’s prisons were so overcrowded that a federal court ordered the state to slash their population. Many criminals who would have served time in state prison were diverted to county jails, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which made room by releasing their own inmates early. By keeping more offenders out of jail in the first place, Prop. 47 was supposed to reduce these premature releases and thus improve public safety.

The California Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan government agency, estimated that it would reduce state incarceration costs by $150 million annually, money that would putatively be redirected to rehabilitation programs, mental-health services and drug treatment. This appealed to liberals and conservatives alike.

“California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system,” Newt Gingrich wrote in the Los Angeles Times in September 2014. “It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders. Proposition 47 on the November ballot will do this.”

Though voters passed the initiative 60% to 40%, Prop. 47 has fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences. Last year there were 22,000 fewer drug arrests than in 2014. Police officers have noted that it makes no sense to haul in drug users since they face little if any jail time. Even those repeatedly cited are often released after only a few days behind bars. Many land on the streets. It’s surely no coincidence that the syringe-littered Santa Ana Civic Center is adjacent to Orange County’s central jail complex.

County drug-court programs report fewer participants since Prop. 47 passed. The threat of a felony conviction and years in jail used to encourage addicts to enter treatment. Less so now. “There is strong evidence that it is not so much the severity of punishment, measured by sentence length, as the certainty of punishment that is most important in deterring crime,” the Public Policy Institute of California noted last year in a report on alternatives to incarceration.

Unpunished drug use might also contribute to an increase in violence. Last November, 28-year-old Jimmy Truong shot at Santa Ana police and led them on a high-speed chase after being pulled over at a traffic stop. Mr. Truong had two felony convictions for drug possession, which had earned him a 16-month prison sentence. But after Prop. 47 the convictions were downgraded to misdemeanors and he was released without being placed on parole. “Prop. 47 has been a disaster for public safety,” the chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney said after the high-speed chase.  “It was sold to the voters as safe neighborhoods and safe schools and it’s been anything but.”

Prop. 47 also doesn’t appear to be saving taxpayers money. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget this year inexplicably reduced the state’s annual projected savings to $60 million. Meanwhile, he has signed a generous labor contract with correctional officers that will increase their pay and benefits by $588 million a year.

What’s more, the $60 million in “savings” probably won’t be enough to rehabilitate the thousands of inmates who have been released—not to mention those who will never be incarcerated. The costs will show up in state health-care and welfare programs or be shifted to cities and counties. Los Angeles voters are being asked to approve a $1.2 billion bond measure this November to provide housing for the city’s burgeoning homeless.

Incarceration may not be the best way of helping low-level criminals such as drug addicts. But California’s experiment illustrates the perils of mass decarceration.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

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