Victory: California Takes Significant Step Toward Ending Mass Incarceration and War on Drugs

Today, California voters took a significant step toward ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs by approving Proposition 47. On the heels of reforming the state’s “three strikes” law in the 2012 election, Californians overwhelmingly voted to change six low-level, nonviolent offenses – including simple drug possession – from felonies to misdemeanors.

“The overwhelming support for this reform sends a powerful message nationally, demonstrating that voters are not just ready but eager to reduce prison populations in ways that can enhance public safety,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Prop. 47 has the potential to drastically reduce the number of people in state prisons and county jails – who don’t need to be there for reasons of either justice or safety – by making 20,000 current people eligible for resentencing and reducing new admissions by 40,000 to 60,000 every year. Between 500,000 and one million Californians will be eligible for automatic felony expungement, thereby removing debilitating barriers to employment, housing, education and public assistance. Prop. 47 will then dedicate the savings – likely more than $1 billion over five years – to schools, victim services, and mental health and drug addiction treatment.

With its retroactive sentencing and expungement provisions, the impact of Prop 47 in California on wasteful corrections spending and individual lives will be profound and surely resonate across the country.

With less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its incarcerated population, the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world – largely due to the war on drugs. Misguided drug laws and draconian sentencing requirements have produced profoundly unequal outcomes for communities of color. Although rates of drug use and selling are similar across racial and ethnic lines, black and Latino people are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than white people.

Statewide, Prop. 47 will save counties between $400 million and $700 million annually, according to a brief by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Statewide, jails will see freed capacity of 10,000 to 30,000 jail beds. Using three counties as examples, the brief estimated that Los Angeles County will save $100 million to $175 million, San Diego County will save between $28.4 million and $49.7 million, and San Joaquin County between $6.8 million and $12.0 million annually with the implementation of Prop. 47. Most of these savings will accrue from freed jail capacity, with between 2,500 and 7,500 jail beds freed in Los Angeles County, 700 to 2,100 beds freed in San Diego County, and 170 to 500 beds freed in San Joaquin County.

Although Prop 47 does not specifically address marijuana, people with felony records for marijuana possession (which is possible because possession of marijuana concentrates can be charged as a felony under current law) would be eligible to be resentenced and can also file a petition to expunge or clear their records.

DPA’s lobbying arm, Drug Policy Action, supported this initiative with assistance on its drafting, as well as financial and other support for the campaign.

“We’ve been trying to get simple drug possession reclassified as a misdemeanor through Sacramento for years, facing first an unwillingness by the Legislature and then last year’s veto by Governor Brown,” said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “With Prop. 47, California voters took the issue of smart justice into their own hands. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

Press release from Drug Policy Alliance