SF Dist. Attorney: Police Union Messaging on Prop. 47 'Disingenuous'

SF Dist. Attorney: Police Union Messaging on Prop. 47 'Disingenuous'

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SAN FRANCISCO – San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said that the recent spike in property crimes in the city has little to do with Prop. 47.

He even went so far as to characterize as “very disingenuous” the San Francisco Police Officers Association’s claim that the surge in car break-ins can be traced to the law.

“Car break-ins are not covered by Prop. 47,” Gascon said at an ethnic media news briefing here April 21. “It was a felony before Prop. 47, and it still remains a felony. It was going up even before Prop. 47.”

The April 21 media briefing was organized by New America Media. Panelists also included San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, Hillary Blout, Prop. 47 staff attorney with Californians for Safety and Justice and a former San Francisco prosecutor, and Erica Webster, communications and policy analyst with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). The focus of the briefing was the impact of the law on crime.

The public initiative enjoyed 60 percent of voter support when it passed in November 2014. It reclassified some non-violent drug and property felonies as misdemeanors. Since the law took effect, there has been a decrease in incarcerations and it has expunged the conviction records of thousands of Californians. Additionally, around 5,000 people have been released from state prisons for low-level offenses.

Supporters of the measure cite studies to show that there is no clear indication to suggest that there’s a connection between it and a spike in crime in some California cities, said Webster.

“As jail populations are decreasing, the crime rates are not increasing,” she said, pointing to a report by her agency suggesting that. In the counties of Fresno and Sacramento, for instance, there has been a 7 percent decrease in jail populations but no increase in crime.

She said if the 2011 Public Safety Realignment law is any indication, it could take a year or two to see the effects of Prop. 47. The realignment law was passed to reduce state prison populations. There was a surge in crime soon after it launched, but arrests have leveled off since then.

“It’s too soon to measure Prop. 47’s impact,” Webster noted.

An estimated 128,000 felony cases statewide are currently eligible for relief under Prop. 47.

In drafting the law, Gascon said, much of the early conversation was focused on reforming the drug laws and “turning around our war on drugs.”

“We know when people are committing low-level crimes, it’s because of drug addictions or mental illness,” said the county’s chief prosecutor. “If a person has a drug addiction or a mental health problem, and we know about it, we are going to try to get them to a better place.”

He said drug addiction is in fact not a criminal justice problem but a mental health problem, and holding a person in jail for it isn’t going to help unless “the underlying health problem” is treated.

Adachi said that drug laws are enforced in an uneven way, with African Americans and other people of color more likely to be prosecuted for violating them. The best way to reduce drug addiction is to change the person’s behavior through counseling, he said.

Blout pointed out the economic benefits of the law. She said it is far more expensive and takes a lot more time to prosecute a person for a felony than it is for a misdemeanor. It takes around $62,000-a-year to keep a person in jail, and felony convictions translate to longer sentences. Since the law went into effect, there have been 40,000 fewer felonies prosecuted, she said.

“That equals savings,” she said, noting that some 5,000 people have been released statewide so far, allowing the state to meet the court-ordered population cap a year ahead of schedule.

Panelists pointed out some of the fallouts from felony convictions.

“The person still has 43,000 restrictions” to cope with, Blout said. For one thing, they are stripped of their civil rights in most states. A criminal record creates obstacles to employment, and other reintegrating opportunities are few and far between.

Only 5 percent of people released from state prison under Prop. 47 have committed a new crime that sent them back to prison, according to a report by the Stanford Law School.

By next month, California would save around $100 million. The law requires that 65 percent of the savings be distributed to public agencies for substance abuse and mental health treatment and other recidivism measures.