The mass incarceration of people of color has left a significant portion of the population without the right to vote. While more than half of California’s adult male population is non-white or Latino, three out of four are in prison. While Latinos and blacks make up 44 percent of California’s population, they make up 70 percent of the prison population. Underrepresented groups are disproportionately impacted by employment-related effects of incarceration.
Billed as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” Proposition 47 would reduce penalties for some of the most common crimes with a $950 dollar cap: drug possession, petty theft, possession of stolen goods, shoplifting, forgery and writing bad checks. Once potential felonies, these offenses would be recategorized as misdemeanors and possible punishment would include serving less jail time — the maximum sentencing decreasing from three years to one.
Advocates for this bill have focused on the financial savings, but reducing petty crimes to misdemeanors would also give two basic rights back to a historically disenfranchised population: the right to vote and the opportunity to apply for a job without being judged for having committed a nonviolent or nonserious drug or property crime.
Blacks and Latino/as — who are underrepresented and whose voices are often silenced — would be able to vote on propositions that affect their lives and the elected officials who make those decisions. This proposition is a step in addressing the overcrowding in California prisons. More than 7,000 current inmates could petition courts to reduce their sentences.
Proposition 47 will diminish California’s incarceration rate, saving the state millions. Annual savings to the state prison budget would eventually rise from $100 million to an estimated $300 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. These savings would cycle back into our communities, according to the proposition, creating programs that would serve, teach and prevent rather than imprison.
Sixty-five percent of money saved would go to a state jail commission to disburse grants for mental health, substance abuse and diversion programs. Ten percent would be allocated to a state victim compensation fund, while the remaining 25 percent would be sent to the Department of Education.
Opposition to the proposition has revealed a misinformed racialized fear that those resentenced to shorter time served, or “get-out-of-jail-free” card, will default back to a life of crime. However this concern has no basis. If the same crime were to be committed again, the offender would be sentenced another year. Prop 47 will have the potential to break this cycle. Funding in diversion, rehabilitation and educational programs can ultimately minimize criminal activity in our communities.
While the proposition is largely beneficial, it would also decriminalize possession of drugs like methamphetamines and rohypnol, the date rape drug. Since carrying date rape drugs would be classified as a misdemeanor, it does not require individuals who have been convicted of possession of those substances to disclose this part of their past to potential employers. This section of the proposition should be re-evaluated so employers are aware of the crime that could have more dangerous ramifications.
As a whole, this law would do more good than harm and with the appropriate provisions, it could reform our system and create safer communities. By being allowed to vote, people are given the ability to speak up and improve the circumstances that can factor into the incarceration of many people from low-income neighborhoods. Former prisoners who committed minor crimes have a chance to continue their lives normally and be reviewed fairly for jobs they are qualified to do. People born into a system that consistently sets them up to fail now at least have more of a fighting chance to succeed.