SACRAMENTO, Calif.—A 2014 California voter-approved initiative that reduced penalties for certain drug and property crimes has led to the lowest arrest rate in state history as police often dismiss those prohibited activities, specialists say.
Proposition 47 lowered criminal sentences for theft crimes and minor drug by reducing them from felonies that could bring long prison sentences to misdemeanors that instead bring as much as annually in jail.
Recent state Department of Justice statistics show the amount of felony arrests plummeted 28.5 percent last year, while misdemeanor arrests climbed about 9 percent over 2014. That arrests overall and the resulted in 52,000 lowest arrest rate since record-keeping began in 1960.
“It’s really driven by changes in drug and property arrests,” said Public Policy Institute of California researcher Magnus Lofstrom, who studies the issue. “I believe it’s quite clear that Prop. 47 is the leading contributor to the changes we’ve found.”
Last year’s decrease in arrests, with the fewest felony arrests since 1969, is a part of a long term decline dating to the 1980s that continues to be spurred by the law as well as crowded jails and fewer cops, Lofstrom said.
It though Lofstrom as well as other researchers are watching the relationship closely.
Law enforcement officials said when they can be detained, because there might be little penalty, substance offenders may now normally be mentioned and released, or blown off. There were about 22,000 fewer drug arrests last year.
“The de facto decriminalization of substances may have an impact,” said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association. “We do know that there’s a lot less arrests being made, which means there are much more people on the roads using drugs.”
State Department of Justice figures show violent crime soared 10 percent a year ago, over 2014. Property crimes also increased, including nearly 11 percent increase in thefts, two crimes affected by Proposition 47 and a nearly 12 percent upsurge in shoplifting.
But involvement in drug courts has rebounded as counties adapted to Proposition 47 by including it in sentences for those charged with misdemeanors or drug -related crimes for example stealing to support their dependence, said Santa Clara County Judge Stephen Manley.
“I believe it’s been a fairly dramatic response to getting treatment to the individuals who want it the most,” said Manley, president of the California Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Mel Sargent, 66, and Caroline Sargent, 54, even married -month drug court program in March. Sacramento County probation officers bought them wedding rings.
“Before it was always the ‘war against drugs,’” Sargent said. “We got to begin to see the judiciary, the more human side of the probation department and the other side.”
It reported that prosecutors seem to be filing more charges for identity theft felony drug sales and robbery given that drug possession, writing bad checks and check forgery were reduced to misdemeanors.
Some DA’s offices have tried to charge their way around Prop. 47, no question about it,” said John Abrahams, co-chairman of the California Public Defenders Association’s legislative committee.
Lenore Anderson, who directed the drive to pass Proposition 47, was pleased by reports that there might be an overall improvement in the justice system, even if the initiative is demanding some adjustment.
“My greatest hope is the fact that we start to really see some innovation that people haven’t seen previously,” Anderson said.
As an example, this year’s state budget includes $15 million for authorities to experiment with using case managers and diversion programs to help prostitutes and low-level drug dealers in place of setting them in jail.
Without help, “they’re released in a brief period of time and go right back to the same situation,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D Berkeley, who pushed for the capital.