California's Proposition 47, passed in a referendum last November, set in motion a dramatic reversal of the state's approach to mass incarceration.
The law changed six of California's low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and made eligible for resentencing hundreds of thousands of individuals convicted of those crimes.
Not surprisingly, it has drawn the attention of policymakers and law enforcement authorities from across the country—some of it controversial.
“This was such a big fix—being able to go from felony to misdemeanor,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, an advocacy group that spearheaded the referendum campaign.
“We're engaging in a lot of dialogue about how to change practices, how to put a priority on public safety without relying on over-incarceration.”
But how will success or failure be measured?
Four months later, the answer is still not clear—but criminal justice practitioners and advocates contacted by The Crime Report suggest that the passionate debate it fueled is only just beginning.
At a session last month at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Anderson told criminal justice practitioners and advocates that thousands of prisoners have been resentenced and released since Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60 percent of California voters approving the measure.
The move should ultimately free up police, court and prison resources to focus on more serious violent crimes, she said.
“By changing them categorically from felony to misdemeanor, we shrink the amount of time the criminal justice system spends on these non-violent crimes,” added Anderson.
Critics of the measure, however, warned that letting people out of jail, and removing the threat of felony charges, would lead to an increase in crime and compromise public safety.
Their argument appeared to receive some support when the Los Angeles Times reported on February 21 that narcotics arrests in the city declined significantly after voters approved the bill—while property crimes increased.
The story also noted: “some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions.”
New Yorkers don't typically read articles about local crime rates on the West Coast, but the spike in property crime was the first thing Anderson was asked about when she finished her speech.
She said she wasn't alarmed by the statistics.
“The criminologists in the room, I hope, would point out that three months' worth of data is … too short of a time period to completely hang all of that on Prop 47,” Anderson said.
“If changing these crimes from felony to misdemeanor has that kind of an impact, I think we need to really question what we're doing in the criminal justice system.”
John Jay College criminologist Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer, said in an interview that in the short-term, an increase in certain types of crime would be expected.
Moskos said that comes with the territory when trying to fix a justice system as massive and overcrowded as California's.
“What trade-off are we willing to take? If property crime is only up 10 percent, I could live with that for now,” he said. “I think there's a real qualitative side that numbers are not going to include.”
One criminologist who isn't a fan of the early assessments of Proposition 47's impact on crime is Barry Krisberg, a Senior Fellow of the Earl Warren Institute at the University of California Berkeley Law School—and an occasional contributor to The Crime Report.
“This alleged increase in property crimes, I'm not believing it,” he said in an interview. “That information isn't even officially produced yet; it's based on police counts, which are often inaccurate.”
Krisberg and Anderson's argument were echoed in an email sent by the advocacy group Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, encouraging its supporters to write letters to the Los Angeles Times’ editors.
“The reporters quoted a number of people, but only one service provider and no people positively impacted by the initiative,” wrote Peggy Edwards, the group's executive director.
The Times, however, stood by its reporting. Jack Leonard, who edited the February 21 story, noted there have been few upticks in property crimes reported by Los Angeles' police and sheriff's departments in the last decade.
“We have an obligation to our readers to report on what's happening now, and if we hear from police and prosecutors that there are problems, we should tell the readers,” Leonard said in an interview with The Crime Report. “And we should add the caveat that criminal justice practitioners say not to jump to conclusions.”
Former San Diego Police Chief Bill Landsowne, who retired in March 2014, says law enforcement organizations — in particular the state's Police Chiefs, Sheriffs’ and District Attorneys associations — are responsible for orchestrating a media push to discredit Proposition 47.
“As a sitting chief it would have been very difficult for me to advocate for Prop 47,” Landsowne, a proponent of the referendum, told The Crime Report. “You don't want to be an outlier in the process, you want to be tough. But police know we need more treatment options in the system.
“This is not something that's going to go away.”
Among the issues that have cropped up in Los Angeles is an apparent reluctance to make arrests for the low-level crimes that used to lead to felony charges.
It's a change that retired California Superior Court Judge George Eskin has called counterintuitive.
He says that less crowded jails means that those picked up for misdemeanors can be held for the entire length of their sentences, as opposed to the early-releases that were so common when the system was overflowing.
“I personally feel it's really awful that they're not making arrests for misdemeanor offenses,” Eskin said in an interview.
“That's problematic, that some law enforcement agencies think they can predict the outcome of an arrest. The fact is, a year in jail is not a slap on the wrist. Six months in jail is not a slap on the wrist.”
To criminologist Eugene O'Donnell a former New York City police officer, the mixed early statistical returns — and the debate surrounding them — is not surprising.
“It's absolutely premature, you can't just snap your fingers and fix a complicated problem,” O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College, said.
“This is going to be something that has a long-term impact; trying to make a 60-day assessment is impossible.”
Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes comments from readers.
*Editor’s Note: The headline for this story has been changed, because the original may have been misleading.