Report: Ballot Measure Would Put Thousands Behind Bars, Harm Communities of Color

A view of the California State Capitol. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A November ballot measure that would roll back a number of recent criminal justice reforms would disproportionally harm communities of color, according to a report being released today by a nonprofit advocating for less incarceration.

The analysis by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, or CJCJ, found that the proposed initiative would drive up prison and jail populations, increase public spending on law enforcement and incarceration by hundreds of millions of dollars a year, in addition to diverting resources from programs that rehabilitate former offenders, and generally hurt communities of color.

Proponents of the measure rejected those contentions, saying it was narrowly written to only impact a small group of violent offenders.

But Maureen Washburn, a policy analyst at CJCJ, noted that crime has continued to fall in California as reforms took place over the past decade — and any reversal of those changes would disproportionately impact communities of color in California, who are incarcerated at higher rates than whites.

"In the moment we're in, I think this initiative is especially dissonant," said Washburn, who co-authored the report.

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She said that's particularly true at a time of national protests over police brutality and racism — and as the state, cities and counties all face massive budget shortfalls because of the economic harm caused by the pandemic.

"When we're considering ... a proposal that would increase penalties for low-level offenses, in a system that's already profoundly biased against Black, indigenous and Latino Californians, I think it's clear that it would only extend the harm of our criminal justice system," Washburn said, trapping "more and more Californians in that really difficult-to-escape cycle of entering and exiting jails and courts and probation."

The ballot measure, backed by some law enforcement officials and victims rights groups, aims to pare down some of the sweeping criminal justice reforms enacted in California over the past decade. Broadly, it would make it easier to charge someone with felony theft and easier to send someone back to jail for violating their probation; and harder for many inmates to earn parole from state prison.

It would do so by reversing aspects of three laws — two enacted by voters — aimed at both reducing the number of people in crowded prisons and jails and the amount of money the state spends locking people up.

Over the past five years, one of those measures — Proposition 47 — has allowed $350 million to be redirected from prisons to victims services, schools and treatment programs. Prop. 47 reduced many nonviolent and drug-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and allowed people previously convicted of those offenses to petition a court to have them reduced to misdemeanors. It took the savings achieved from lower prison and jail populations and redirected them toward community programs.

But the November initiative would reverse portions of Prop. 47, making it easier to charge someone with felony theft. The report estimates that change alone could result in an additional 4,900 to 9,900 felony arrests per year — costing taxpayers an additional $154 million to $457 million a year in court, probation, jail and prison costs.

"So the big takeaway for us on the fiscal side, at least, is that this is going to be hugely expensive," Washburn said.

But, she added, "I think that the far greater costs of an initiative like this are going to be borne by communities and families and people that are swept up in a more punitive system."

The ballot measure also seeks to roll back some aspects of Proposition 57, a 2016 ballot measure written by former Gov. Jerry Brown; and Assembly Bill 109, which lawmakers approved in 2011.

Prop. 57 gave some state prisoners the opportunity to shorten their sentences by participating in rehabilitation programs. State officials say by next year, it will have resulted in some 8,600 inmates serving shorter prison sentences, and is saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

AB 109, also known as realignment, requires people convicted of nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual crimes to serve their sentences in local jails instead of state prisons. It helped reduce the state's prison population by tens of thousands of inmates, and was intended to address a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the population in California's overcrowded prisons. The courts found that the overcrowding was resulting in inadequate medical care and violating inmates' constitutional rights.

But the CJCJ report states that many of the gains made by Propositions 47 and 57, and AB 109, would be reversed if the proposed ballot measure is approved by voters. In the first five years, it could drive up state costs by $2.3 billion, money that could otherwise be spent on "programs that address the root causes of crime," the report states.

The report also states it would drive up prison and jail populations, potentially putting California in violation of the Supreme Court order, leading to more lawsuits and forcing county sheriffs to release some inmates early.

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More generally, the report finds, the initiative would pull more people into the criminal justice system — and by prioritizing punishment over treatment, "could result in more people trapped in a pattern of low-level crime."

Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former police officer who helped write the measure, said he does not believe it will lead to a drastic increase in jail or prison populations. He said it was carefully crafted to target violent offenders ineligible for earlier reforms.

"While it will increase some costs, the universe is not that big, and it keeps bad people in jail. So if you're pimping a kid or raping a woman, you are a bad person and you should do your time. That’s all I’m saying," he said.

Cooper said he doesn't believe the reforms have saved as much money — or benefited communities — as much as the other side contends.

But Washburn said any reduction in spending on rehabilitation and other programs that help people turn their lives around, could actually make California communities less safe.

Crime rates, she notes, have continued to fall over the past decade, as these reforms were implemented.

"I think that there's a real argument to be made that this initiative — in addition to increasing costs in the criminal justice system — would really siphon funds that are necessary for community-based programs, for prevention, for treatment, for the things that keep people out of the system in the first place," she said.

"This initiative, rather than increasing community safety, actually puts communities at risk of potential increases in crime."