On Election Day, Californians achieved an important step towards equity — just and fair inclusion so that all can reach their full potential — by resoundingly approving Proposition 47, which will fix unfair sentencing laws that have resulted in prison overspending and overcrowding. Prop 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, will reclassify six nonviolent felonies — such as simple drug possession and petty theft — as misdemeanors, shifting several hundred million dollars annually from California’s broken prison system to schools, mental health and drug treatment, and victims’ services.
While we should take the time to celebrate this landmark victory — spurred by the concerted efforts of equity advocates across the state, including unified coalitions of black and Latino communities — we must also start thinking about how to ensure Prop 47 is implemented in an equitable way. Our state’s courts are busy planning how this change will impact the judicial system — is the community also getting ready to be sure that Prop 47 leads to real change?
California’s communities of color have faced disproportionate arrests for minor crimes. Now, in addition to stopping the unfair stigmatizing and sentencing, up to 30,000 currently incarcerated Californians may be returning to their communities because of Prop 47’s effects. We must all be engaged in making sure they can smoothly reconnect with their families, be active in community life, and find opportunities for job training and jobs.
The safety net of supportive services will need to be expanded to respond to the needs of those returning home as well as those who have come to the attention of the courts for minor offenses that may indicate need for services. Putting these supports and connectors in place will require creative political and community leadership. For instance, the network of community-based organizations that currently serves low-income communities and communities of color should be utilized to provide support, services, and jobs to returning community members. This requires that philanthropy, government, and the private sector step up and channel capacity-building resources to these groups.
Prop 47 continues a welcome trend in California of moving away from harsh and ineffective incarceration towards rehabilitation and hope. To truly achieve success, we must successfully reintegrate currently incarcerated Californians into our communities using advocacy and investment in the areas of health, housing, education, employment, and financial security. This will create a path for our returning neighbors to get back on their feet and contribute to their families, communities, and the economy.