Surprise! Conservatives and Liberals Are Backing a Law to Reduce Some Prison Sentences

Voters in the Golden State could reduce prison sentences if they pass a proposition to reclassify felony nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors.

(Photo: Steve Ross/Getty Images)

Oct 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Cocaine and heroin possession are felonies in California, whereas those found with ketamine or “bath salts” only face misdemeanor charges—but this could change if a bipartisan-backed proposition to alter some crime classifications succeeds on November’s ballot.

Proposition 47 would reduce the classification of drug possession, including cocaine and heroin, from felonies to misdemeanors. Additionally, theft, such as shoplifting and forgery, of items valued at less than $950 would be considered misdemeanors.

Contributors on both sides of the aisle have poured a great deal of money into the Yes on 47 campaign in an effort to clear out overcrowded prisons, save the state money, and release nonviolent inmates. Liberal supporters such as philanthropist George Soros, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and former Facebook president Sean Parker have added hefty donations to the cause. But none of them is the biggest backer of the proposition. That title goes to B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a conservative Christian billionaire from Malibu, Calif., who once called Occupy Wall Street “a bunch of jerks.” Hughes told The Daily Signal, conservative group The Heritage Foundation's publication, that it's common sense to seek reform that humanizes offenders. Though the owner of Public Storage has made hefty contributions to Republicans, he has also pitched in nearly $1.3 million toward the prisons reform proposition. Altogether, proponents have raised $4 million.

The opposition has only raised $300,000, with skepticism mainly coming from law enforcement officials such as Shelley Zimmerman, the chief of police of San Diego, who called the initiative a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” The New York Times reports.

For those unfamiliar with crime classification, misdemeanors carry small fines and generally less than a year of jail time. Felony convictions mean larger fines and hefty jail time, not to mention that forbidding box on job applications.

Taking these nonviolent crimes out of the felony category would reduce sentences for an estimated 40,000 future offenders annually as well as retroactively affect sentences for those currently incarcerated, SFGate reports.

Many suffering under the current classification are felons serving time because of California’s strict three-strikes law. The “Three Strikes and You're Out” law mandates 25 years to life in prison for a third-time offender if the first two felony convictions are for serious or violent crimes. The big issue here is that the third strike does not have to be a serious one, and three convictions are particularly difficult to avoid for drug addicts who aren't being rehabilitated behind bars. With overwhelming voter support, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed the law in 1994, after a string of high-profile murders by repeat offenders.

The three-strikes law resulted in much longer prison sentences and overcrowded jails. The law was amended in 2012 through Proposition 36, which gave exemptions for nonviolent offenders with no history of violence on their criminal records. Proposition 47 would extend lighter sentences to even more prisoners and would save the state additional money in the process.

As many as 10,000 prisoners could petition to be resentenced and released under the proposition. Fewer inmates in prison would save the state big bucks—money it would spend on avoiding criminal behavior in the first place. California is projected to save hundred of millions of dollars annually. Under the proposed law, that extra cash would be funneled into programs that work to prevent school dropout and truancy as well as provide mental health and substance abuse treatment.