Since voters passed state Proposition 47 on Nov. 4 and reclassified certain theft and drug offenses as misdemeanors with no option to be upgraded to felonies, the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office has had to assign an assistant DA to the task of handling petitions from inmates and former inmates seeking reclassification of their offenses.
As of Dec. 17, the Superior Court had approved 369 requests to have these kinds of felonies reclassified, and released 148 inmates from incarceration, Chief Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti said. Petitions have come from offenders who have either served their sentences, are awaiting trial or incarceration, or are currently incarcerated.
Asked whether the released inmates had been in county jail or state prison, Ms. Guidotti said that prosecutors have not been tracking that information.
A key to Proposition 47 is losses that involve $950 or less. If a crime meets that threshold and the crime is theft, forgery, receipt of stolen property, or writing checks or money orders from accounts with insufficient funds, Proposition 47 requires that prosecutors charge the crime strictly as a misdemeanor.
The threat of a felony charge was a tool in negotiating with such offenders to turn their lives around, Sheriff Greg Munks said. A felony conviction usually sends someone to state prison, which is much harsher than serving time in jail and tends to make life very difficult after release. It's much harder to find and keep a job, and several rights can be curtailed, including the right to vote, access to public benefits and being eligible for student loans.
Such sanctions do not accompany a misdemeanor conviction. The maximum sentence is a year in county jail, and in San Mateo County, it's not uncommon for well-behaved offenders to serve six months and be out on the street again, Mr. Munks said.
"I don't think that initiatives are a good way to make law or reforms or deal with complex systems and problems," he said. "They don't benefit from the collaborative thoughtful process that occurs when you make laws the right way, through the legislative process."
"People who are with gangs and feel trapped in a gang need a pathway out," Mr. Munks said. "I'm not suggesting that (tough options) are the only thing that turns people's lives around. They can see friends die and the light could go on. There are lots of different ways, including (drug treatment programs). They do work for many people, (people) who go into the program for six months and do the hard work that goes with it. They need structure."
Criminals will now be bolder and less motivated, he said. "A lot of the drug treatment programs are going to dry up," he said. "People are not going to have that incentive to participate. ... They won't hit rock bottom (and) our ability to throw the book at somebody is diminished."
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., doesn't buy that argument. What's behind it, he said, is a prosecutorial concern that Proposition 47 will lower felony conviction rates.
Ms. Guidotti of the DA's office said she gets the point of Proposition 47, that incarcerating violent criminals is preferable to inflicting the harshness of prison on drug and property crime offenders. But offenders for the crimes covered by Proposition 47 tend not to be first-time offenders, she said. "A lot of them are charged with felonies because they have a long history of crime," she said.
Mr. Munks gave $8,500 in the fall of 2014 to the campaign against Proposition 47. Records for the November 2014 election show the measure passed by a majority of nearly 60 percent across the state, and by 70 percent in San Mateo County.
Major newspapers endorsed the proposition, including the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. All but three of the state's 58 district attorneys opposed it, one of the three being Jeff Rosen of Santa Clara County, according to the Mercury News.
Proposition 47 establishes a route for offenders to obtain a lower charge, but it's a limited-time offer. People in post-trial judicial processes or who are now serving time have three years to request a new sentence. Those who have completed their sentences also have three years to request having their offenses reclassified.
Judges in San Mateo County have rejected 47 petitions as ineligible, so far, for one of three reasons, Ms. Guidotti said: The crime was not among those addressed by Proposition 47, the offender had also been convicted of a sex crime, or the amounts involved exceeded $950 -- the threshold beyond which petty theft becomes grand theft.
The DA could see thousands of petitions by the time the three-year window closes, she said. Some cases could be decades old. In each case, the task will involve determining whether the crime qualifies, which will include finding the police report to determine whether the monetary values involved are below the $950 threshold. It's going to take a lot of time, she said.
"We'll work with it. We'll do our best to keep the community safe," Ms. Guidotti said. "The real challenge of Proposition 47 is that it's completely wide open retroactively."
Mr. Mauer of The Sentencing Project said he expects Proposition 47 petitions to surge initially and then drop off after a few months.
"I think it was a very smart proposition that should be beneficial for the state overall," he added. "This group of offenses should not result in state prison incarceration. It's a bad approach to public safety."