I recently met a woman from South Los Angeles, who lost her five year-old son 30 years ago when a Los Angeles police officer accidentally shot and killed him. At that time, she did not have access to, or the resources to get, counseling. In her grief-stricken state, she turned to drugs and was promptly arrested for drug possession, which landed her in a California state prison. She spent time in and out of prison for years until she finally received some much-needed counseling and got herself on the “right path.” Had the presiding Judge in her first case sentenced her with a misdemeanor instead of a felony, she would have avoided the initial prison sentence and possibly further incarceration, potentially providing an opportunity to receive the help that she needed.
Fortunately, during the November 4, 2014 statewide general election, Californians voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 47, commonly known as the “Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act”. This law immediately reduced a few low-level, nonviolent felonies to misdemeanor status and is impacting current cases. These crimes include:
- Simple drug possession
- Shoplifting under $950
- Committing petty theft under $950
- Receipt of stolen property under $950
- Forging checks under $950
- Committing fraud under $950
This overdue change impacts current and past cases in which offenders do not pose a threat to public safety. By freeing up prison beds, California will save hundreds of millions of dollars annually. These savings will be allocated to K-12 school programs (25%), mental health and drug treatment (65%), and victim services (10%). Now law enforcement can focus on violent and more serious and crimes while providing crime prevention programs that can make communities safer. My hope is the rest of the country will follow California’s example in addressing over incarceration and overcrowded prisons that cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
About the Author: Schoene Mahmood is the Restorative Justice Specialist for the Restorative Justice Project at CURes. Ms. Mahmood brings nearly a decade of experience implementing Restorative Practices programs and facilitating Community Conferences. She is currently overseeing partnerships with Westchester Enriched Sciences and Magnets, Florence Joyner Griffith Elementary, and the Centinela Valley Union High School District. Before joining the RJ Project, Ms. Mahmood facilitated court diversion cases at the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, Maryland. She handled cases referred by the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office, Department of Juvenile Services, Baltimore City Police Department, and Baltimore City Schools. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies with an emphasis in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Missouri-Columbia.