California’s Proposition 47 will reduce many felony convictions to misdemeanors

Jeff vonKaenel

The sermon was on forgiveness. First United Methodist Church minister Don Lee told us that Jesus asked us to forgive our sinning brother “not just seven times, but 70 times seven times.” Then, Lee started preaching about some really big forgiveness numbers. Numbers of biblical proportions: Proposition 47, The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act, on the November ballot.

Prop. 47 would change felony convictions for petty property crimes and nonviolent drug possessions to simple misdemeanors, in most cases. It would do this retroactively. Hundreds of thousands of Californians would be able to update their criminal records, reducing their felony convictions to misdemeanors. This reclassification would remove many employment and housing barriers for convicted felons.

And 10,000 people in prison for nonviolent property and drug possession felonies would be eligible to be considered for re-sentencing to misdemeanors. Prop. 47 would also reduce future sentencing. The end result: fewer Californians in prison.

Over the last 25 years, Californians have passed over 1,000 new crime laws, many of which expanded what constituted a felony, as well as increasing the length of prison terms. From 1991 to 2009, there was a 51 percent increase in the length of sentences, resulting in more than 132,000 people languishing in overcrowded California prisons in 2012.

Prop. 47 is not just about forgiveness. It is also about money. It costs $62,396 per year to keep someone locked up. Our state tab for prisons is $10 billion. Since the tough-on-crime bills did not include tax increases to pay for themselves, the additional expense came out of the general fund. This meant cutting other programs such as schools and public health to pay for prisons.

The numbers are obscene. In the past 30 years, California has built one university and 22 prisons. Corrections spending is 80 percent higher than spending on California State Universities and University of California colleges combined. From 2009 to 2012, California cut 21 percent from mental-health services (more than $586 million).

Prop. 47 would take much of the savings from reduced state prisoner counts, estimated to be around $200 million a year, and move that to K-12 schools (25 percent), victim services (10 percent) and mental-health and drug-treatment services (65 percent).

While Jesus has not taken a stand on Prop. 47, and while Lee only asked his congregation to consider it, Prop. 47 has considerable religious support. Locally, the Sacramento Area Congregations Together is phoning voters asking them to support the measure. Sacramento Catholic Bishop Jamie Soto, speaking as president of the California Catholic Council representing all 12 dioceses, came out with a strong message in support of Prop. 47. The initiative has also received endorsements from our own Darrell Steinberg, labor and education organizations, and even such unlikely supporters as Newt Gingrich.

Now, while I am not sure I am ready to forgive my brother 70 times seven times, I am ready to vote once on November 4 to forgive hundreds of thousands of them. I encourage you to join me.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.