In a few days, Proposition 47 will be one year old, and with this anniversary comes close scrutiny of the effect this reform has had on the state of California.
Proposition 47 is an initiative aimed to provide certain criminals with the opportunity to acclimate back into society as well as to reduce state prison housing expenditures by allowing a number of low-level felonies to be converted to misdemeanors on old criminal records. Depending on the case, five felonies, including simple drug possession, petty theft under $950, and forging or writing a bad check under $950 all have the potential to be reduced to misdemeanors.
Over the past year since the measure went into effect, the California State Legislature has become increasingly critical of the reform. According to the Los Angeles Times, the rate of property crime in Los Angeles has risen 10.9 percent this year compared to last year. Violent offenses rose by 20.6 percent, and overall crime has risen by 12.7 percent. Other cities in California have seen a similar increase in crime rates, as has the rest of the country.
The U.S. justice system is one of the largest problems facing our country today. A study performed by the International Centre for Prison Studies shows that we have an incarceration rate of 707 people per every 100,000 and a recidivism rate of 76.6 percent, one of the highest in the world. We spend $80 billion per year on incarceration. Other countries seem to have much more effective prison systems. Norway, for example, has an incarceration rate of only 75 people per 100,000 and out of those 75, only 20.6 percent relapse once released. Although criticized now, Proposition 47 is a necessary reform for California, as well as an example of effective judicial reform for the rest of the United States.
On a moral basis, our society views law as a redistribution of justice. We talk about “giving a criminal the justice that she deserves.” The practical goals of our justice system, however, are to to deter others from committing crimes and rehabilitate those who have committed crimes. Proposition 47 does not diminish the justness of the California prison system but instead focuses attention on the opportunity for prisoners to have a second chance.
Some Scandinavian countries, such as Norway and Finland, seem to be striking an effective balance between these two goals of the judicial system. Their laws allow for less sentence time and fewer sentences overall. If incarcerated, criminals might have the opportunity to spend their sentences in an “open prison,” where they are able to have free time, prison-mandated jobs, and the ability to spend time with their families.
Rising crime rates in California may be linked to Proposition 47, but we cannot conclude that this is true given the evidence that we have. Correlation does not imply causation, and given that crime rates across the United States increased similarly this year, this possible cause is improbable.
A natural response to the lack of clear evidence of Proposition 47’s effects is to grasp at straws and attempt to identify causal connections where they don’t exist, but we should take care to avoid drawing hasty conclusions. After all, the effects of a policy can take years, even decades to be realized. Instead of making premature judgments, Californians should remind themselves of the reasons they passed Proposition 47 with a strong 60-percent majority in the first place: It’s a step in the right direction for the reform of our failing prison system.
Although it does not provide our inmates with posh living spaces, ping-pong tables or frequent visitation rights as Norway and Sweden’s open prisons do, the system allows criminals who have committed low-level felonies to have the opportunity to recreate their lives after incarceration by their criminal record. Instead of being almost universally unemployable, ex-criminals can apply to jobs that will dissuade them from committing crimes a second time. Overall, criminals will spend less time in jail. This will not only reduce prison debt in a state in need of financial aid, but also means that this money will be reallocated toward causes such as education and drug and alcohol abuse programs, both which fight to combat crime.
Proposition 47 is not perfect. It does not encourage drug or alcohol rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration. It does not attempt to solve the issue of higher level crimes, or encourage crimes to not be committed in the first place. However, it does create a more inviting system for ex-criminals looking to redefine their place in society. More importantly, it is small step towards a prison system that may resolve many of the problems plaguing the system we have in place today. We must reserve judgment for now, and trust that reform like Proposition 47 is not only good for California, but with time will prove to be a positive example for the United States.
Emma Houston CM ’19 is from Boston, Mass., and is interested in majoring in philosophy and physics.