Only a week after Proposition 47, a measure aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, took effect, the San Diego County District Attorney’s office has gotten more than 1,000 petitions for reduced sentences and convictions.
The proposition, which took effect November 5, designates non-violent crimes like petty theft, forgery, shoplifting, fraud and possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine as misdemeanors, not felonies. Not only does it affect those being charged with those crimes, but it can retroactively reduce the prison time for those who have already been sentenced.
The DA's office expects to receive 4,600 petitions from 1,800 in-custody offenders, filed by the San Diego County Office of the Public Defender. That number will grow when offenders on probation, parole and post-release community supervision -- as well as inactive cases -- are taken into account.
The public defender’s office may reach as far back as 1990 to resentence certain felonies to misdemeanors. The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office estimates it convicts 20,000 to 25,000 felonies a year, and many of those are reducible convictions under voter-approved Proposition 47.
Because of the measure, deputies in San Diego County have been directed to no longer arrest people suspected of receiving stolen property or theft under $950. Instead, the suspects are required to sign a citation, promising to appear in court.
While San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore says the department will still arrest and book anyone charged with possession of a controlled substance other than marijuana, he says Prop 47 eliminates the deterrent to certain crime.
“They can get arrested one, two, three, 20 times. Nothing changes,” said Gore.
The crimes made misdemeanors by Prop 47 can only be charged as felonies under specific circumstances, said Gore. That’s if the suspect has been convicted of a crime that requires mandatory registration as a sex offender or carries a sentence of life in prison or death.
Also in that category are suspects with prior convictions for murder, attempted murder, assaulting a police officer with a machine gun, or possessing a weapon of mass destruction. Other violent crimes like carjacking or assault and battery do not qualify.
Without the threat of a felony or arrest, except under the aforementioned circumstances, critics are concerned for public safety.
“I think we’ll see a rise in property crimes: the thefts, the drugs, and then hopefully we won’t see a rise in violent crime,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney David Greenberg. “But a lot of folks that do residential burglaries are drug addicts because they need to steal to support their habit, so those are serious and dangerous crimes and some bad things can happen, especially if you surprise someone during a burglary.”
But some believe there’s enough evidence in states with similar laws to suggest Prop 47 is still good policy.
Public policy analyst Laura Fink told NBC 7 in most states with similar laws, prison populations have been reduced, but so have crime rates.
“Clearly this is something that has worked in the past,” Fink said. “It’s something we’ll need to keep our eye on but it has a lot of promise.”
The savings to the state achieved by reduced prison and jail populations won't be calculated until 2016, and it'll take longer to divide the saved money among rehabilitation programs as the measure intended.
That has critics like Gore asking how and where the offenders will receive treatment if they're being released.
Because of this, the San Diego City Attorney's office, which handles misdemeanor prosecution within city limits, anticipates 3,000 more cases a year.
A spokesperson for that office told NBC 7 it’s putting together a plan to handle the increased workload. In the meantime, the DA’s office has offered to loan the city attorney’s office two of its attorneys.