Handcuffs

By ERIK ECKHOLM
OCT. 5, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty years ago, amid a national panic over crime, California voters adopted the country’s most stringent three-strikes law, sentencing repeat felons to 25 years to life, even if the third offense was a minor theft.

The law epitomized the tough-on-crime policies that produced overflowing prisons and soaring costs.

Now California voters appear poised to scale back the heavy reliance on incarceration they once embraced, with a measure that would transform several lower-level, nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors punishable by brief jail stays, if that, rather than time in a state penitentiary. The referendum on Nov. 4 is part of a national reappraisal of mass incarceration.

To its advocates — not only liberals and moderates, but also an evangelical conservative businessman who has donated more than $1 million to the campaign, calling it “a moral and ethical issue” — the measure injects a dose of common sense into a justice system gone off the tracks.

“Law enforcement has been on an incarceration binge for 30 years, and it hasn’t worked,” said George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney and a former police chief who, bucking most of his counterparts around the state, is the main sponsor along with a former police chief of San Diego. For the large numbers of nonviolent offenders with mental health or substance abuse problems, Mr. Gascón said, “Incarceration doesn’t fix the problem.”

California has already been forced by federal courts to trim its prison population because of inhumane crowding, which it did mainly by sending more offenders to county jails. Two years ago, in a previous referendum, voters took the worst sting off the three-strikes law, shortening the sentences of those whose third crime was a minor one.

The new initiative would have wider effects, altering penalties for low-level theft and drug-possession crimes that result in felony convictions, and sometimes prison terms, for thousands of nonviolent offenders each year.

Proposition 47, as it is called, would redefine thefts, forgery and other property crimes involving less than $950, and possession for personal use of drugs including heroin and cocaine, as misdemeanors — punishable by at most one year in a county jail, and often by probation and counseling. The changes would apply retroactively, lightening the penalties for thousands already in prison or jails.

To read entire story, click here.