On Election Day last Tuesday, California became the largest state to widely defelonize drug use; a step many see as an important step in California’s criminal justice reform.

California Proposition 47 is an initiative that intends to lower incarceration rates related to drug use and other non-violent crimes. The initiative won by 58 percent of the vote.

The state predicts that by lowering the severity of certain crimes, such as nearly all crimes related to personal drug use, to misdemeanor offenses, the result would keep tens of thousands out of jail, saving the state somewhere in the realm of high hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

According to the proposition, these savings will in turn be spent on school truancy and dropout prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment and victim services.

The ins (but mostly) the outs of California Prop. 47

Proposition 47 is an initiative, pushed by George Gascón, the San Francisco District Attorney, that reduces the classification of most non-serious acts of property and drug crimes – from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes, many former drug and property related felonies will be reduced to only a misdemeanor offense, meaning most offenders will not do any time.

Crimes affected by this initiative are:

–     Shoplifting, where the value of property does not exceed $950

–     Grand theft, where value of the property does not exceed $950

–     Receiving stolen property, where the value of the property does not exceed $950

–     Forgery, where the value of the forged check does not exceed $950

–     Fraud, where the value of the fraudulent check, draft or order does not exceed $950

–     Writing a bad check, where the value of the check does not exceed $950

–     Personal use of most illegal drugs

California’s Desperate Need for Prison Reform

The U.S. alone has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While the U.S. accounts for only five percent of the world’s population, it accounts for nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Since the beginning of the War on Drugs decades ago, California has some highest incarceration rates in the country due to drug related crimes. In 2011, the Bureau of Justice reported that a quarter of all of California’s inmates are incarcerated in drug related charges.

Between 1982 and 2000, the state’s prison population increased 500%. To compensate for this, California built 23 new prisons, costing between $280 million and $350 million each.

However, this is a number that has steadily decreased in recent years, due largely to public outcry over overpopulation in the state’s prisons. Local prison systems in California fluctuate between running at 120 percent to 150 percent of their intended capacity.

Overpopulation, along with inadequate medical facilities and mistreatment cases have caused federal courts in California to intervene in the prison system since the 1990s. Since 2007, by order of federal courts, the prison system’s medical system is under federal receivership, meaning a federal court may impose a mandatory limit on the system’s total population.

According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, it costs around $45,000 annually to keep a person in prison. With more than 150,000 prisoners, the total cost accounted for seven percent of California’s entire budget during the Fiscal Year 2013-2014.

How Prop. 47 Could Lead to Reform

California is the largest state to implement reform that defelonizes drug use, although it is not the first. Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas have all implemented similar reform in recent years.

However, the California Legislative Analysts Office estimates that the proposition will free anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 jail beds in the years to come. The office reports that this will save the state anywhere from $400 million to $700 million annually.

If results from other states are any indicator of the future, then the Legislative Analysts Office is accurate.

Arkansas’ Act 570, similar to California’s Proposition 47, decreased prison population by nine percent in 2012, which will save the state an estimated $875 million by 2020. The state’s crime rate also dropped by almost three percent between 2011 and 2012.

In Texas, a state with similar incarceration rates as California, a similar initiative saved the state an estimated $2 billion, and between 2007 and 2012, dropped the crime rate 11 percent.

These success rates are good news for California. Since February, federal courts required the state to take initiative to decrease prison populations. Success stories in other states mean that California could be on the right track to positively reforming its prison system.