While three of California’s biggest local police unions are taking out full-page newspaper ads promising to back reforms, other law enforcement organizations have pumped more than $2 million into a November ballot measure that would partially overturn laws that some call models for reforming the criminal justice system.
Police unions have contributed more than half the nearly $4 million raised for the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act campaign. The ballot initiative would roll back provisions in three measures that were aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, including Proposition 47, a voter-approved 2014 initiative that reclassified several felony crimes as misdemeanors.
The measure would change Prop. 47 by allowing prosecutors to charge a defendant with a felony for a third offense of stealing something worth more than $250. Prop. 47 raised the felony threshold for theft to $950 from $450.
“It is a measured approach to correct the problems we had with Prop. 47,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the state’s largest law enforcement labor organization, representing more than 77,000 public safety workers.
The ballot measure would also change parts of AB109, a 2011 law that transferred the responsibility for many nonviolent felons from state prisons to county jails. It would require the Board of Parole Hearings to consider an inmate’s whole criminal history when deciding on parole, not just the person’s most recent crime.
The initiative would also alter Proposition 57, a 2016 ballot measure that made it easier for nonviolent felons to win parole. It would expand the list of crimes that would not be eligible for early parole to include felony domestic violence and other violations.
“There were some good pieces in Prop. 47 and 57, but it was overly broad,” Marvel said.
Prop. 47 and the other two measures were part of the response to a 2011 federal court order that California cut the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons by 34,000 within two years.
Besides reducing the prison population, Prop. 47 and AB109 combined to lower the overall arrest rate per 100,000 residents by nearly 20%, according to a 2019 report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Prop. 47 has also helped to steer money away from incarceration. The law required that the state spend the money it saved by not imprisoning more nonviolent felons on social and educational programs — an example of “defund the police” initiatives that many reformers are calling for now. This year, the state will redirect nearly $103 million in this way, according to the California Department of Finance.
Reform advocates say the November ballot measure would be difficult to square economically with a state budget that has plunged into the red with the coronavirus pandemic. A report to be released Thursday by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan organization in San Francisco that works to reduce reliance on incarceration, found that the changes proposed by the ballot measure could cost California “hundreds of millions of dollars in new annual costs” to take care of more people in prison and monitor more felons on probation.
In San Francisco, the measure could mean up to $7.5 million in additional annual costs, and Alameda County’s total could rise by $26 million, the study found.
“It’s a prison spending scam at a time when we are actively closing prisons and reallocating funds toward what’s needed in communities,” said Dan Newman, a political strategist who is working on the opposition campaign. “They’re doubling down on solidifying their places on the wrong side of history at a critical moment.”
The ballot measure’s supporters started the initiative campaign long before the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd touched off anti-brutality protests across the country, and they’re not changing their approach now.
“Why should we? We just want reform, too” said Kelli Reid, a consultant to the campaign.
The campaign’s website says the past decade’s changes have led to “an explosion of serial theft and an inability of law enforcement to prosecute these crimes effectively.” The initiative’s proponents say they want to change parole rules because “parolees who repeatedly violate the terms of their parole currently face few consequences, allowing them to remain on the street.”
“If I stab you or beat you with a baseball bat, those are considered nonviolent crimes under the penal code (now),” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove (Sacramento County), a former Sacramento County sheriff’s captain who supports the measure. “These are not crazy things we’re proposing.”
A 2018 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, found “no evidence that violent crime increased as a result of Proposition 47.” The report did find that “it may have contributed to a rise in larceny thefts, which increased by roughly 9 percent” from 2014 to 2016.
Some leading Prop. 47 advocates see a contrast between the ballot measure and promises by local police unions to back changes in law enforcement.