California voters get their say on so many initiatives every election cycle that it can be difficult to separate the trivial from the significant. But there was no mistaking what happened when the Golden State’s electorate gave Proposition 47 a 20 percent margin of victory this past November: an earthquake was unleashed in the world of criminal justice. The tremors have reached as far as Texas and New York, where prison reformers are looking at Prop 47 as a model for their own proposals.
By reclassifying six low-end drug and petty-theft felonies as misdemeanors, Prop 47 removed an estimated 40,000 people per year from the prison pipeline. Most of these men and women initially serve only a few months, but the consequences—restrictions on employment, barriers to access to government benefits and a high likelihood of reincarceration—last a lifetime. The reform was designed to invest the savings, estimated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office to be up to $200 million annually, in mental health programs, drug treatment, early education and other infrastructure. Prop 47 also allows an estimated 10,000 prisoners to petition judges to reduce their sentences based on the new reclassification of their crimes. Perhaps most important, it allows all state residents who have been convicted of one of these felonies to apply to get the crimes removed from their records. By some calculations this will dramatically improve prospects for more than 1 million Californians.
“The sheer volume of potential impact, year over year, is absolutely huge,” explains Robert Rooks, organizing director at Californians for Safety and Justice (commonly called Safe and Just), whose 501c(4) arm, Vote Safe, was behind Prop 47. “It’s not just another state policy reform. It’s unlike any we’ve seen.” What made the victory all the more remarkable was that it was won in a low-turnout, off-year election—a scenario that traditionally skews votes to the right. Yes votes piled up not just in traditionally liberal coastal cities, but also in conservative inland counties.
According to Lenore Anderson, Safe and Just’s forty-three-year-old executive director and chair of the Prop 47 campaign, the vote sent “a very strong signal” that Californians are fed up with mass incarceration and prefer to focus state resources on improving community health.
Anderson, a military brat who once dreamed of becoming a drummer in a punk rock band, was chosen by the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Fund and other big funders to head the newly conceived organization in 2012. As the Prop 47 campaign took shape, she built a coalition of advocacy groups like the ACLU and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, at which she had worked after she graduated from law school at NYU. The Prop. 47 campaign was also joined by a surprising cross-section of public figures, including Senator Rand Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and conservative philanthropist B. Wayne Hughes Jr. Other partners included the Open Society Foundations; senior law enforcement figures like Bill Lansdowne, onetime head of the San Diego police department; San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón; several prominent victims’ rights advocates; and hundreds of religious leaders from around the state.