OAKLAND, Calif. – California’s Prop. 47 allows many individuals to change certain felonies into misdemeanors on their criminal records – but less than a quarter of those eligible have submitted their requests, and the window of opportunity could expire next year.
Eighteen months into Prop. 47’s enactment, the state has received some 211,000 petitions seeking resentencing or a record change.
The ballot measure, which passed in November 2014 despite heavy opposition from law enforcement associations, gives a three-year window for the estimated 1 million eligible individuals to file for relief.
Prop. 47 converted certain nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors, which translates into little or no jail time for crimes like low-value theft and simple drug possession. The savings generated by the measure are meant to guide people into programs such as drug treatment.
Advocates worry that because the “application process is so complex” – even though the application itself is only a page long – and counties don’t have enough attorneys who can spend adequate time dealing with petitions, the sun may set on the window before all those eligible can apply.
However, in early June, California State Assembly approved AB 2765, a bill that would extend the deadline by five years, from November 2017 to November 2022. It is scheduled to go before the Senate Public Safety Committee on June 28.
If it is signed into law, “it will give the courts and the judicial system more time to process the applications,” says Marisa Arrona, Prop. 47 implementation director with Californians for Safety and Justice, the non-profit that was at the forefront of the Prop. 47 campaign. Equally importantly, it will give more time for criminal justice advocates to conduct outreach and get more people to submit their requests.
Prop. 47 supporters say that processing petitions is burdensome for the public defenders’ offices that deal with the cases. And resentencing takes “some coordination,” says Contra Costa County Public Defender Robin Lipetzky. Since the measure is retroactive, and there is no limit on how far back a conviction can go, some rap sheets could go back several decades.
“No sustained funding”
The biggest problem, however, is “there’s no sustained funding for the legal services that help eligible individuals file for Prop. 47 relief,” says Eliza Hersh, director of Clean Slate, a project of the East Bay Community Law Center.
In Alameda County, for instance, the Public Defender’s office got no funding at all to take up Prop. 47 cases. Hersh says that Public Defender Brendon Wood assigned an attorney from his staff to deal with Prop. 47 cases full-time, with no additional funding for the increased work.
Contra Costa County also faced the same funding shortage, but the Public Defender’s office was able to get some outside grants – one for $50,000 from the San Francisco Foundation and another for $25,000 from The California Endowment, according to Public Defender Robin Lipetzky.
The money allowed her office to hire one legal support employee to work on Prop. 47 cases. So far, the county has received about 2,400 petitions.
“We have been processing between 50 and 100 cases a week,” says Deputy Public Defender and Reentry Coordinator Ellen McDonnell.
Kelly Emling, chief deputy with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, said that despite no additional hires, her office so far has been able to grant about 50,300 petitions.
“Our workload has increased,” Emling says, pointing out that processing applications “looks deceptively simple.”
Thanks to her department’s partnership with a number of community-based organizations, outreach into the community has been good, although not as much as is necessary, she says.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is likely to approve the hiring of a few paralegals to deal with Prop. 47 applications when it meets June 28, she said.
In the meantime, Californians for Safety and Justice, in partnership with other non-profits, is continuing its outreach efforts to increase Prop. 47 applications. She worries that there may be homeless people who are not even aware of the law.
A “Justice Fair” of the kind held last September in South Los Angeles is scheduled for June 25 in Stockton. Scores of volunteer attorneys will be on hand to assist applicants. (Viji Sundaram/newamericamedia.org)