Prop. 47 would do two things. First, it would reclassify a wide range of crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor. This would mean shorter prison sentences for serious crimes like stealing firearms, identity theft and possessing dangerous narcotics such as cocaine and date rape drugs.
Second, Prop. 47 would result in the resentencing and release of thousands of individuals already convicted of these crimes.
The crimes that would be reclassified from a felony to a misdemeanor are not minor crimes.
For instance, the penalty for stealing a firearm valued at up to $950 would be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, reducing a sentence from up to three years in prison today to a maximum of just 12 months under Prop. 47.
Stolen firearms often end up in the hands of felons and others who cannot legally possess them, where they are used to commit violent crimes. Theft of a firearm should be punished as a felony, plain and simple.
Penalties would also be reduced for possessing dangerous narcotics such as cocaine, meth, heroin and GHB, a common date rape drug. While laws regarding marijuana would remain untouched, penalties for having the most dangerous, most addictive drugs would be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors.
Stealing from a business while it is open—known as commercial burglary—could also no longer be charged as a felony if the value of the items stolen was $950 or less. This could signal to criminals that stealing from small businesses may be worth the risk.
Agricultural crimes like stealing livestock valued up to $950, as well as many instances of identity theft crimes such as forgery, would also be treated as misdemeanors.
These are not minor crimes and the penalties associated with them should not be reduced.
Another danger from Prop. 47 is that it will result in the resentencing—and often outright release—of thousands of California convicts.
Supporters of the proposition estimate that approximately 10,000 felons will be resentenced, with many of those felons being immediately released after they are resentenced. These estimates appear to be significantly low.
Alameda County alone estimates that more than 2,000 inmates there would be eligible for resentencing. This suggests that many more than 10,000 felons statewide would be eligible for resentencing and release.
Unfortunately, there are no firm statistics on how many prisoners would be affected, and that’s a big problem with this proposition.
Courts would also have little or no discretion over which individuals would qualify for resentencing. Unless an individual poses an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety,” resentencing must be granted.
The problem is the definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” is extraordinarily narrow. It covers only those who are at risk of committing eight specific crimes: three specific sex offenses, murder or solicitation to commit murder, assault with a machine gun on a peace officer or firefighter, possession of a weapon of mass destruction or an offense punishable by life in prison or death.
This means an individual at risk of committing serious crimes other than the eight listed above, such as carjacking or robbery, would automatically qualify for resentencing if he is serving time for a crime covered by Prop. 47.
Let me offer an actual example of how this law would work.
A criminal is currently serving a prison sentence of more than seven years for stealing a handgun. He has a long prior record, including convictions for residential burglary, vehicle theft, receiving stolen property, drug possession, evading police and resisting arrest.
None of this individual’s prior convictions, including the one for residential burglary, would make him ineligible for resentencing under Prop. 47. In fact, the proposition’s narrow public safety exception means it’s a near certainty that this offender’s sentence would be reduced, regardless of his prior record and even if the court believed he was likely to commit more crimes.
Another weakness of Prop. 47 is that it would seldom apply to first-time offenders.
Only rarely is an individual convicted of a felony covered by the proposition actually a first-time offender. It’s well known that true first-time offenders rarely end up in prison.
First-time drug offenders often receive treatment instead of jail time. And many other first-time offenders negotiate their crime down to an infraction or otherwise participate in a program that allows them to avoid a felony conviction and jail time.
In fact, of the 3,177 offenders in state prison who would be eligible for resentencing under Proposition 47, only 77 are first-time offenders.
By the time a person has been convicted of a felony covered by the proposition, he has most likely been through the judicial system several times.
Simply put, the reduction in sentences proposed by Proposition 47 would ultimately lead to the release of thousands of dangerous criminals, and a wholesale reclassification of many dangerous felonies as misdemeanors would put the people of California at continued risk going forward.
Dianne Feinstein is California’s senior U.S. senator. She is a Democrat.