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Proposition 47 lowers penalties for crimes such as drug possession

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POSTED October 9, 2014 9:40 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — A projected 40,000 offenders each year would face lower penalties for crimes such as drug possession and petty theft if California voters approve Proposition 47 on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Major law enforcement organizations oppose shifting the nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors that carry a maximum penalty of less than a year in custody.

Proponents, however, say the measure would reduce jail and prison crowding while annually freeing hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent crime. The measure calls for 65 percent of the savings to go to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25 percent to school truancy and dropout prevention programs, and 10 percent to help crime victims.

“We need to end this cycle of crime,” said San Francisco District Attorney and former city police chief George Gascón, one of the main proponents. “This initiative will allow us to be smart about the way we use our money.”

The opponents argue that it would endanger the public as California adjusts to another major shift in its criminal justice system.

Three years ago, California began keeping most lower-level offenders in county jails instead of state prisons in response to federal court orders and what was then a massive state budget deficit. The change often resulted in shorter sentences or early releases because of jail crowding.

Proposition 47 would affect drug possession, petty theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, and forging or writing bad checks. The reduced sentences would apply to the property crimes only if the amount of money involved is $950 or less. Anyone convicted of those offenses who is a registered sex offender or has a previous conviction for crimes such as rape, murder or child molestation could still be convicted of a felony.

A felony conviction makes it far more difficult to get a job or housing assistance, often leading the offender to commit more crimes, said Lenore Anderson, a former San Francisco prosecutor who now heads the advocacy group Californians for Safety and Justice that is backing the initiative.

Opponents object that the reduced sentences would apply to stealing guns or possessing date rape drugs.

“You steal a firearm to commit a crime, not to add to your gun collection,” said John Lovell, speaking for the California Police Chiefs Association that is among groups opposing the measure.

Under the proposition, a projected 10,000 offenders who already are serving felony sentences for the drug and property offenses could petition to be resentenced, unless a judge found they would be an unreasonable risk to public safety.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst estimated that state and county criminal justice systems would each save hundreds of millions of dollars annually by incarcerating fewer offenders for shorter amounts of time.

Of the 40,000 future offenders who might be affected each year, the analyst estimated about 4,000 go to state prison under current laws. The rest already serve their time at the county level but would face shorter sentences.

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