California voters are about to cast a momentous vote for prison reform with the passage of Proposition 47 on Tuesday, November 4th. The initiative to reduce penalties for illicit drug use and petty theft is part of a multi-million dollar campaign to revise sentencing laws in California and across the nation.
Prop 47 would reclassify possession of heroin, meth, and other illegal drugs and theft of $950 or less as misdemeanors instead of felonies. If the measure passes, California will be the first state to “de-felonize” all drug use.
According to an article by Los Angeles Times reporter Paige St. John, five major foundations including the California Endowment, the Rosenberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation have poured millions of dollars to push for changes in California’s policies on crime and punishment. The campaign has been aimed at research, shaping public opinion, media coverage and grassroots activism on the issue.
“We hope we’re setting a precedent for the nation,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the National Drug Policy Alliance, an active supporter of Prop 47.
The coalition members have been driven by a belief that California as well as the rest of the country locks up too many people for too long and that public safety would be better served by putting resources toward mental health and drug addiction treatment and job training. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons were unconstitutional and Governor Jerry Brown’s remedy–to direct a quarter of the state’s felons to county jails–provided what has been called the “perfect storm” to bring about needed change. In addition there has been a huge drop in violent crime in California hitting a 45-year low in 2011.
Passage of this proposition in California and across the nation would prevent egregious injustices such as the one reported by Jennifer Gonnerman in the October 6, 2014 issue of the New Yorker. Her article, “Before the Law” describes the plight of 17-year-old high school junior, Kalif Browder, who was incarcerated for 3 years in New York’s Rikers Island jail awaiting trial for allegedly taking a man’s backpack. He was never brought to trial and his case was eventually dismissed because the accuser returned to Mexico. Three years of his young life (much of which was spent in solitary) were destroyed because of the ineptitude of an overzealous criminal justice system.
Kudos to George Soros and his alliance of forward thinkers for addressing the need for prison reform in our country.