A Year After Prop 47, Thousands of Felonies Reduced, Cost Savings Still to Come

In San Diego, one in five people receiving reduced sentences have committed a misdemeanor and felony again

A year after California voters passed Proposition 47, a measure allowing certain drug possession felonies to be reduced to misdemeanors, prison populations have decreased, courts are struggling to handle re-offenders and the promised money savings is still to come.

Approved Nov. 4, 2014, Prop 47 changed some low-level felonies into misdemeanors in an effort to reform the criminal justice system. It also requires misdemeanor sentencing for certain crimes including petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging/writing bad checks when the amount is $950 or less.

After a year in place, Prop 47 has reduced the prison population, but critics say it has some unintended consequences that undermine the effectiveness of tried and true crime-fighting tactics and has allowed drug offenders to skip out of much-needed rehab programs.

They are talking about offenders like Corey Whiteley. The 46-year-old has a criminal record in San Diego dating back to 1990.

On Oct. 1, 2014, Whiteley was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and pleaded guilty.

Normally a felony, the crime was reclassified under Prop 47 and was reduced to a misdemeanor.

Two months later, he was arrested again -- on two separate occasions: once on Dec. 16 for possession of drug paraphernalia and again on Dec. 18 for being drunk in public.

“There is no increased punishment no matter how many times they get caught and arrested. It's very difficult to give them any substantial penalties,” San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Rachel Solov said.

NBC 7 Investigates’ Mari Payton takes a look at Prop 47 a year after it was passed. In Part 2 of the investigative series, we examine the real financial impact of the law.

Solov works on realignment-related issues, including Prop 47, for San Diego County.

She said if Whiteley's felony wasn't reduced to a misdemeanor under Prop 47, there would have been more programs and resources to get him into treatment.

“Now that many of these crimes are misdemeanors, there are not a lot of incentives for these offenders to participate in those courts, so that's made some challenges for us,” Solov said.

Deputy District Attorney Rachel Solov works on realignment issues for San Diego County, including Prop 47. She said, in San Diego county some offenders are cycling through the court system.

Former San Diego Police Department Chief William Lansdowne co-wrote Prop 47 and said he's proud of what it's accomplished.

“It's rebuilding lives, rebuilding people, and it's what this great state of California needs to do,” he said.

Former SDPD Police Chief William Lansdowne said Prop 47 is rebuilding lives.

According to a report released last month by the Stanford Advocacy Project, a group that helped draft Prop 47, 13,000 inmates have been released from state prisons and jails since the measure passed. The report says the recidivism rate of state prisoners who were released early under Prop 47 is low; less than 5 percent of those released early have been convicted of a new crime.

Click here to read the report.

The numbers paint a different picture in San Diego.

According to the San Diego DA's office, 41,400 petitions from convicted felons seeking lower charges and sentences have been filed since the passage of Prop 47. So far the office has reviewed 13,000 of them and granted more than half, 7,831.

Of the San Diego defendants who have had their cases reduced under Prop 47, 22 percent committed either a misdemeanor or a felony again, according to the DA. That means one in five are picking up a new offense.

Solov said that’s a problem.

“It is a problem because any time that we continue to see an increase in recidivism or any time that we continue to have people break the law, even if they're misdemeanors, they affect our communities,” she said.

Lansdowne doesn’t see it that way and said Prop 47 is doing what it's supposed to do.

“It has given more space for people who are violent offenders to serve the whole time instead of being released early which makes us safer in the process,” he said. “San Diego is one that everyone is looking at now. Crime rates are staying pretty flat. In fact it's gone down slightly in this last year with the prop.”

Prop 47: Cost and Savings

Part of the Prop 47 proposal included the creation of a fund designed to give money to schools, crime victims and correctional programs including drug rehabilitation.

Supporters of the measure said it is projected to save hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars. But others believe additional costs are being incurred because low-level criminals are cycling in and out of the justice system.

The fund is called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund. Under Prop 47 it was designed to receive appropriations based on the savings accrued in a fiscal year, as compared to the previous year.

According to a recent ACLU report, savings is expected to reach up to $200 million by 2017 and should be reinvested into the community, starting next year.

Click here to read the ACLU report.

Lansdowne said this savings makes Prop 47 a cost-saving success.

“That money will go to victim services, K through 12, and 64 percent goes to where we desperately need it: people that have mental health issues or drug issues," the former chief said. "For the first time we are going to see some real money invested in treatment but it's back-loaded. We could do it any other way; there wasn't any money until Prop 47.”

Solov said even with the savings, repeat offenders are putting a strain on the criminal justice system. “It remains to be seen how much additional money is spent on these cases continuing to recycle through our system,” she said, “how much additional money it's actually going to cost across our court systems, how much it's going to cost our jails and our law enforcement for responding. You know if you think about it, every time someone comes through this system, there's a dollar amount attached to it whether or not they do a long jail period.”

Solov said the court system is waiting to see money promised from Prop 47 and it is unclear how much it will receive.

Before Prop 47 those facing a felony drug charge were given a choice: go to prison or participate in drug court, which usually meant 18 months of mandatory drug testing and treatment.

According to the DA’s office, to avoid a longer prison sentence, many offenders chose drug court and entered into treatment. Solov said that changed after Prop 47. Without the threat of a felony, there was little incentive to get treatment.

“For the most part what we have seen is that these offenders who don't want treatment would rather do their time in custody, than participate in the program,” Solov said.

Lansdowne said the measure is not the problem. He said he believes the number of "frequent flyers" can be reduced, but the court system needs to make changes.

“The DA, the police, the judges, the courts, all need to work together to come up with solutions that are more effective in treatment and reducing the constant re-incarceration that people have,” he said. “If someone is consistently offending, like 19 cases, we can sentence that person consecutively.”

Lansdowne said more people are in custody in the U.S. than anywhere else around the world and the focus needs to shift away from incarceration.

As for Whiteley, his arrest pattern continued in 2015.

According to Solov, had Whiteley's original arrest remained a felony, his path could have been different. Whiteley would have served more time in custody or been given the option of intensive treatment required to graduate from drug court.

Instead, according to court documents, he was arrested Jan. 10, Jan. 21, Jan. 26, March 25, March 29, May 12 , May 20 and May 23. He then spent about three months in custody. After he was released, he was arrested again on Aug. 18, Sept. 18, Sept. 25, Oct. 4, and on Oct. 19 for being under the influence and resisting arrest.

NBC7 Investigates spoke to Whiteley's brother who said Whiteley was "currently incarcerated" and is “a grown man...a capable body, but making bad choices."

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