Our criminal justice system is a disaster – so big a disaster that entire books (like Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide”) only start to cover the waste, dysfunction and needlessly ruined lives. An incarceration rate massively higher than any other country in the world hasn’t done much to make the U.S. safe, even as we burn through hundreds of billions of dollars. California alone spends $9 billion a year just on prisons.
People get upset when you call our justice system racist, but it’s hard to find another word for something that arrests and imprisons people of color at such dramatically higher rates than whites. As of 2012, 38% of people in state or federal prisons were black and 21% were Latino – far exceeding their percentage of the population. In California, African Americans make up just 6.6% of the state’s people, but 28.9% of our prison population.
Most damning is the fact that these rates have little to do with who actually commits crimes. For example, blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates, but blacks are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for it.
Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn in favor of saner policies. California can take a major step in the right direction by passing Proposition 47 this November.
Prop. 47 puts into law a simple, sensible idea: Felony convictions and state prison should be for people who commit serious, violent crimes – armed robbery, murder, rape – and not for petty, nonviolent offenders. It would turn low-level, nonviolent crimes like simple drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors and allow resentencing of those previously convicted on felony charges for these crimes.
The money saved is expected to be huge – from $750 million to $1.25 billion over the next five years. Prop. 47 puts those dollars into programs that will reduce crime, like dropout prevention programs for public schools and drug and mental health treatment. 10% of the money will go to help victims of crime.
Just as important, making these nonviolent crimes misdemeanors will reduce barriers to employment for ex-offenders, make it easier for them to lead productive lives once they’ve paid their penalty. Greenlining has worked hard to make sure that ex-offenders who are nonviolent and trying to become gainfully employed don’t face needless barriers that push them back into crime, and Prop. 47 will further that important work.
I don’t want to oversell this: Prop. 47 will not fix all the problems with our justice system. Much more will need to be done, both in California and nationwide. But it’s a meaningful step toward sanity in a system that’s gone off the rails. That’s why it’s gotten such broad support, from law enforcement leaders (including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne) to religious leaders, civil rights organizations and crime victims’ groups, among many others.
It’s easy to get frustrated and cynical about elections, but sometimes they matter. This one matters. Vote yes on 47. Take the pledge to support Prop. 47 here.