When we punish people for their crimes, we tell them they are paying their debt to society. But too often, that is a myth.
Freedom, it turns out, comes with terms and conditions that may apply. And that’s especially true if you’re among the 20 million felons in the U.S. For them, it frequently means being excluded from jobs, walled off from housing, deported, or prevented from voting.
Proposition 47, a state measure passed last year, was a good start to removing these hurdles and curbing recidivism. The law reduces low level, nonviolent crimes involving simple drug possession and theft of a value less than $950 from felonies to misdemeanors. The savings in incarceration costs are then passed on to education, treatment and victims of crime. Our office — and public defender’s offices across the state — continue to assist people eligible to benefit from a reduced sentence.
While thousands have been helped by Prop 47, millions more Californians could be helped by expanding the law.
The passage of Prop 47 came with a three-year expiration date on reducing past felony convictions to misdemeanors. By removing the deadline, many more people could find relief — including those who have moved out of state and don’t keep up with California’s legislative news.
The breadth of eligible offenses should also be expanded. For example, anyone convicted of stealing from a store during business hours is currently eligible for a reduction in sentence. But if the person stole the same items after the shop closed, they would be barred from taking advantage of the law. Felony vandalism is also absent from the list.
The $950 limit in theft cases is also unrealistic. Consider that a person who stole two iPhones, a felon, would face greater lifelong consequences than the captain of the Exxon Valdez, who was convicted of a misdemeanor for causing one of the most devastating man-made environmental disasters in history.
Low-level drug sales should also be eligible for misdemeanor status. As public defenders, we regularly see clients charged with selling drugs after undercover officers conducting sting operations offer them $20 for the $5 or $10 worth of drugs in their possession for personal use.
These stings don’t punish kingpins or stem the flow of drugs onto the street. They target desperate addicts living in poverty who need treatment rather than additional barriers to self-sufficiency.
Anyone with a former sex offense on their rap sheet is also banned from participating in Prop 47. While everyone recognizes the danger of sexual predators, the current law does not make allowances for individual circumstances. For example, a person caught stealing a carton of milk might still be charged with a felony if they also had an indecent exposure conviction from 1972.
Last month, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a prison. He was struck, he told reporters, by how a youthful mistake can result in a lifetime lost inside a 9-by-10 feet cell. But it’s all to common for those of us without the resources to afford second chances.
“There but for the grace of God,” remarked the President.
Our views on criminal justice have reached a tipping point. Both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge the waste of keeping more than 2 million Americans locked up at $80 billion in taxpayer money each year. Finally, we have had enough. Reform is finally happening.
But in our zeal to empty the prisons, we must address the less concrete barriers to freedom as well.
Allowing redemption for a greater range of nonviolent felons and previously incarcerated people isn’t just beneficial for them and their families. It benefits society, which is missing out on the ideas and talents of millions of Americans.
Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco Public Defender. His public interest show, Justice Matters, can be seen on SFGovTV and sfjusticematters.com.