The Secretary of State confirmed yesterday that Proposition 47 — The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act — will come before the voters on November 4, 2014. The initiative would create monumental changes to California laws concerning simple drug possession and low-level theft crimes. Because of the breadth of the initiative, all criminal defense attorneys should quickly become familiar with its terms. It has the potential to affect a sizable portion of felony cases that are currently pending. It would also benefit tens of thousands of convicted felons in California who would become eligible to have their prior convictions reduced to misdemeanors.
I have added links to both the text of the initiative as well as a question-and-answer analysis of its most important provisions.
In short, except for a limited number of people with specified prior convictions for particularly egregious crimes, all felony offenses for simple drug possession will become straight misdemeanors. In addition, felony punishment will be greatly limited for low-level theft offenses (including commercial burglary, grand theft, petty theft with a prior, receiving stolen property, forgery and check fraud).
Not only would this initiative apply to cases currently pending in court, but people convicted years ago would benefit from it. For example, the initiative would allow someone convicted of felony cocaine possession decades ago to have his felony conviction redesignated as a misdemeanor.
The prospect of this initiative passing seem reasonably strong in light of the public’s apparent desire to avoid Draconian punishment for low-level offenses. It is worth remembering that Proposition 36 (the initiative that allowed drug treatment rather than incarceration for most drug possession offenses) passed by 61 percent in 2000. Another Proposition 36 (this one disallowing lifetime Three Strikes punishment unless the new offenses was serious or violent) passed by 53 percent in 2012. And Proposition 6, which would have greatly increased criminal penalties for a broad range of conduct, was defeated by 70 percent in 2008.
The greatest predictor of this initiative’s success will be the amount of money that can be raised by its opponents. In 2004, when I was a prosecutor, I served as a statewide campaign director of the No on Proposition 66 campaign. That initiative, which would have weakened the Three Strikes law far more significantly that Proposition 36 did eight years later, was only defeated (by 52.7 percent) because of a last-minute infusion of $3.5 million in campaign money by Broadcom billionaire Henry Nicholas, which purchased a flurry of last-minute television and radio ads starring Governor Schwarzenneger. It would be no easy task for the opponents to do the same here, particularly since this initiative (unlike Prop 66) would not result in the release of rapists and murderers from state prison.
At any rate, political prognostications aside, you can read the details here: