Prop. 47 Sentencing Reform Is Reaping Savings So Far

Jewish prisoners at San Quentin State Prison.  (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

California voters passed Proposition 47 last November in hopes it would save money. And so far, it seems to be working.

Prop. 47 reduced the penalties for certain nonviolent crimes like drug possession, shoplifting and theft of less than $950 from felonies to misdemeanors. It also allows inmates already convicted of those felonies to have their sentences reduced.

Hundreds have done just that. The result: fewer inmates in state prisons and county jails. In fact, a report released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO)  found that Prop. 47 will save California $100 million to $200 million annually, starting next year.

The LAO believes Gov. Jerry Brown's new state budget underestimates the reduction of inmates due to the implementation of Prop. 47. While the governor assumes a reduction of 1,900 inmates in 2015-16, the LAO believes that number could be as high as 5,000. Because of that, the LAO says the state doesn't need to keep sending so many prisoners to outside contractors.

State analyst Drew Soderborg says in part because of Prop. 47, California is already complying with a court order to reduce the prison population.

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"We think that because Prop. 47 is likely to reduce the population going forward," Soderborg told KQED. "There's not a real danger the state will fall out of compliance if it brings some of its prison inmates out of contract beds."

The LAO report also found that Prop. 47 will likely reduce the costs of criminal justice for counties, by freeing up jail beds and reducing the time probation departments need to follow prisoners after they're released.

Like anything as complicated as criminal sentencing reform, the LAO warns of "significant uncertainty" in future savings. But it recommended how to allocate those savings.

The report recommends spending 65 percent of it on mental health and substance abuse treatment, 25 percent on reducing K-12 truancy and dropout prevention, and the rest on victim services.

Of course, just three months into its implementation, it's way too soon to say what the unintended consequences and unexpected costs could be from Prop. 47. That said, so far, so good.