Will California’s Prison Policy Changes Spread to Other States?

Sholonda Jackson has been circling downtown San Francisco in search of a parking place for more than an hour, but her tone is still upbeat as she talks about the day’s errand – filing out the paperwork to get the last of her three felony convictions reduced to a misdemeanor. Addicted to drugs since her mother first handed her a crack pipe when Jackson was a teenager, Jackson has been clean now for 11 years.

A devoted wife and mother who works for an organization that supports homeless veterans and volunteers in her spare time, Jackson has her bachelor’s degree and plans to earn her master’s. But today, her top priority is shedding the “felon” label, and everything it carries, once and for all.

Jackson’s destination is the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, where she can get help with modifying her record under California’s Proposition 47. Passed in November 2014, Prop. 47, as it’s known, reclassifies certain low-level drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Its passage meant early release for thousands of prisoners and kept thousands more from going to prison in the first place. For those like Jackson, who have already done their time, it offers the elusive prospect of a fresh start.

Knocking Down Barriers

A felony drug conviction, no matter how old, carries with it a heavy load of post-prison punishments: Formal and informal barriers to everything from financial aid to public housing to getting a job. Advocates estimate that as many as 1 million Californians may be eligible to clear old felonies under the new law.

Jackson, who volunteers in her spare time to make sure those eligible know about Prop. 47, has already succeeded in downgrading old charges in Sacramento and Alameda County. San Francisco is her last step toward a new beginning, but not, it turns out, today. The clinic closes before Jackson can find a parking space. There is nothing to do but turn around and head back across the Bay Bridge to her job in downtown Oakland. But she will be back, Jackson promises with a full-throated laugh – on public transportation.

After a decade-plus of a crack cocaine addiction and a 13-stop tour of duty that included every California state prison for women, Jackson became clean in her early 30s. Until Prop. 47 came along, her criminal record blocked her at every turn as she struggled to secure steady employment, complete her education and build a stable home for herself and her family, she says. In California alone, those who carry a felony record face as many as 4,800 post-incarceration penalties and restrictions. Nearly three-quarters of these last a lifetime and more than half explicitly restrict employment.

Jackson was starting college when she confronted this reality. A placement counselor discouraged her from pursuing her goal of becoming a medical billing and coding specialist, telling her potential employers would likely toss her resume once they learned about her record. He suggested, instead, that she study massage therapy and go into business for herself. Jackson took the advice, made straight A’s and discovered along the way that she was good at her newfound trade. When she learned it would cost $250 to apply for a license to practice, it seemed a small price to pay for the independence the counselor had promised.

Instead of a license, Jackson received a curt letter informing her that her felony conviction disqualified her from practicing the trade (the application fee was not refundable).

Prison Crowding and Prop. 47

Solving problems like Jackson’s was not the main driver behind Prop. 47. When the initiative was placed on the ballot, prison overcrowding was so dire the California prison system had been placed under federal receivership and ordered to cut its population radically and quickly. The new law promised to address this crisis and balance the budget to boot. By passing a measure that wipes an array of former felonies off the books and making it retroactive, the state has done more than pull itself back from the fiscal brink. It has offered a case study in redemption for a nation in the midst of a re-examination of crime and justice issues.

California has long been a harbinger on the criminal justice front. As far back as 1976, California removed the word “rehabilitation” from its criminal code, on the grounds that “the purpose of imprisonment is punishment.” In 1994, as this sentiment gained favor nationwide, California passed an influential “Three Strikes” law that imposed sentences of 25 years to life on those convicted of a third felony, no matter how minor. A decade later, 26 states and the federal government had followed suit.

Today, not just California but the nation as a whole appears to be in the midst of a major re-examination on matters of criminal justice. In a national survey conducted for the Pew Center on the States in 2012, more than 80 percent of those asked supported locking up fewer nonviolent offenders and reinvesting the savings in alternatives, another provision of Prop. 47. In a July speech to the NAACP, President Barack Obama called for prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes to be lowered or eliminated. Calling for greater investment in alternatives to prison, Obama applauded those states – including California – that had lowered incarceration rates in recent years and seen crime rates drop in the process.

“Mass incarceration makes our country worse off,” the president said bluntly, “and we need to do something about it.”

Replicating Prop. 47

Whether the national will exists to answer that challenge remains to be seen. But, there is no question that other states are watching the implementation of Prop. 47 closely – some with an eye on replication.

Lenore Anderson runs Californians for Safety and Justice (also known as Safe and Just) and its 501c(4) arm, Vote Safe, which served as command central for the Prop. 47 effort. Since the initiative passed last year, Anderson says, Safe and Just has fielded “a variety of inquiries” about replication.

In many states, change is already in the works. Texas – like California, a longtime frontrunner in the tough-on-crime charge – recently raised its monetary threshold for felony theft (as did Prop. 47, which makes theft under $950 a misdemeanor). Colorado modified monetary thresholds for financial crimes, such as check and credit card fraud, as well as computer crime and car theft. Utah passed a reform package in March that converts all first- and second-time drug possession offenses to misdemeanors. Other states, including New York and Missouri, are advancing reforms that reduce penalties for low-level crimes. Illinois and Michigan have shown interest as well.

The details may vary from state to state, but the big picture, says Anderson, is that efforts “to replicate the premise that you can build widespread support for sentencing reduction” are taking hold rapidly across the nation.

Those who led Prop. 47 to victory are leaving little to chance on that front. Anderson says that her organization recently received planning grants from the Ford Foundation and The Public Welfare Foundation to “incubate a multi-pronged strategy” that will offer strategic support to state-based organizations already working to reduce incarceration. The ACLU, a prominent supporter of Prop. 47, recently announced plans for an eight-year campaign aimed at reducing incarceration through the political process. That effort is underwritten by a $50 million grant from the Open Society Foundations, also a major backer of Prop. 47.

While the values that undergird Prop. 47 may be catching hold nationwide, some warn the process that brought change to California is not so easily replicated elsewhere. California has a particularly robust ballot initiative system that allows voters to impose their will directly, observes Barry Krisberg of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley. With a few exceptions, Krisberg adds, reformers hoping to bring the Prop. 47 ethos to other states will “have to go through the legislative process. There I become much more pessimistic, because the record of legislators on these kind of laws has not been very good…There’s been a lot more rhetoric than action.”

“Nobody Is Hopeless”

The California experience has made one thing clear: The kind of change that Prop. 47 represents does not simply happen on its own. In what Anderson describes as “an unprecedented level of direct, grassroots outreach,” thousands of volunteers contacted more than 300,000 voters and held more than 200 voter-mobilization events in 15 key counties in advance of the 2014 election. This and other campaign efforts were fueled by millions of dollars in donations from a powerful coalition of funders that includes the Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, The California Endowment, the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Rosenberg Foundation and The California Wellness Foundation.

In the days and weeks that followed the election, the phones at Californians for Safety and Justice were flooded with calls from defense attorneys, advocates and others from around the state. Defendants who had been facing sentences of eight or nine years before the election were walking out of court with terms of six months or even probation. County jail populations were dropping rapidly, by 10 to 30 percent, according to some estimates.

Some of the calls, says Anderson – a seasoned organizer who does not generally veer toward the sentimental – brought her to tears, as she contemplated “not only how significant a change this really was,” but also what that shift revealed about “just how wrong a path (the) justice system had been on for so long.”

“These are pretty run-of-the mill, low-level crimes,” Anderson notes of the offenses eligible for reclassification under Prop. 47. “We didn’t do anything too crazy here, to be honest. But if (it) had this dramatic an impact, you have to ask yourself: ‘How did it get so far out of whack?'”

Anderson’s question begs another: If the criminal justice system has been so profoundly “out of whack” for decades, what will it take not only to rein it back in but to undo the damage to lives and communities incurred during the tough-on-crime decades?

Sholonda Jackson, who does outreach for Prop. 47 as a volunteer with Oakland Community Organizations, is contemplating related questions. A fervent supporter of Prop. 47, she is nevertheless troubled by its focus on a narrowly defined cluster of “non-serious, non-violent” offenses. If we truly believe that people can change, Jackson challenges, we need to offer the same shot at redemption to others who share her will to change, but whose crimes make them ineligible for relief under the law.

“Prop. 47 is a good start,” says Jackson, “but we need to come up with something more inclusive for people who have changed their lives around, regardless of the crime. Nobody is hopeless.”

Jackson’s idealism is tempered by political savvy. The success of Prop. 47, she explains, depended on “the exclusion of many people who could benefit from it. You have people who have committed violent acts who have also changed their lives around but can’t profit from a bill that excludes so many people.”

Like Jackson, Lenore Anderson sees Prop. 47 as only the beginning of a much larger shift – one that will entail not only rolling back over-incarceration but also creating a new paradigm regarding public safety.

“The biggest opportunity we have is not just to end mass incarceration,” Anderson says. “We need to replace it with community health. We need to replace it with lifting communities up. I think that we are in a moment where we can actually do that, and that becomes our platform for safety.”

“We’re not just going to reduce mass incarceration,” Anderson adds with characteristic energy. “We’re going to clean up the legacy too.”