A year ago, Californians took an extraordinary step in addressing failed drug policy and harsh sentencing laws by overwhelmingly passing Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act. Since 2011, California has been under a federal court order to reduce its prison population. Other reforms have attempted to reduce the population, but failed to divert any money into reentry services. Prop. 47 highlights these shortcomings by explicitly diverting the money saved from incarceration costs to fund treatment and services for people involved with the criminal justice system, including victims.
This week the Department of Justice released 6,000 federal inmates, using the same model as Prop. 47. Through a hearing, a judge verified that the person in question was not a harm to public safety. The 6,000 are just a fraction of the number the DOJ intends to release. Public officials and voters recognize that the criminal justice system has failed and the harms inflicted by it must be reversed. The decades old paradigm of a punitive criminal justice system embraced by public officials and law enforcement for decades, has begun to shift to one reformers have been advocating for.
On April 3, Ruben was released under Prop. 47 after serving 19 years of a life sentence for possession of less than two grams of methamphetamine under California’s Three Strikes Law. After a few months in an LA reentry program, Ruben moved to Oxnard, obtained employment at a recycling plant, and is now pursuing his Associates Degree in Digital Arts & Computer Animation. Ruben is just one of 13,000 released under Prop 47 and one of the 160,000 who filed for Prop 47 relief since November 4, 2014.
Prop. 47 is a historical and significant part of the national shift toward smarter justice. It has saved California millions of dollars in prison and jail costs that are forecasted to increase annually. It provides other states with a strong model for safely and successfully reducing unnecessary incarceration and removing the devastating consequences of a criminal record. However, implementation has been challenging and even thwarted in many parts of the state by the same law enforcement agencies responsible with enforcing it. This has left it to community based organizations, advocacy groups, and legal service providers working around the clock to help people obtain the Prop. 47 relief they are entitled to under the law.
An estimated 1 million people in California qualify for Prop. 47 relief. To help facilitate the Prop. 47 reclassification process, the Drug Policy Alliance, in partnership with A New Way of Life, has created a step by step guide for Prop. 47 record change in LA County. DPA has also created an LA County Progress report that illustrates Prop. 47 implementation in Los Angeles County. For more information go to www.MyProp47.org.
Prop. 47 saves the lives of people like Ruben, who deserve a second chance to be their full potential. Echoing this message Obama has banned the box on federal jobs, commuted the sentences of non-violent drug offenders, and promotes rehabilitation and reintegration. The question now is, will public officials continue pumping money into incarceration? Or will they fully fund reentry services that have shown to increase public safety and reduce recidivism?
Eunisses Hernandez is a policy associate for the Drug Policy Alliance.