Rehabilitating Corrections in California: The Health Impacts of Prop 47 (Case Story)

September 2014

An HIA of a statewide ballot initiative in California that reclassifies low-level non-violent crimes to misdemeanors and redirects funding to treatment and prevention.

The Health Impacts of Prop 47: A Case Story

The problem

Every day, conditions in California’s overcrowded and staggeringly expensive prisons and jails cause physical and mental harm to thousands of incarcerated men and women. Many of these people were convicted of crimes that pose no threat to others, but can be traced to mental health and substance use problems. They need treatment, not punishment.

Lower‐level offenders have the best chance of successfully reintegrating into society when they remain linked to community‐based support systems that provide services geared to help them rebuild their lives.

– California Gov. Jerry Brown, 2014 budget message

What we did

We conducted an in-depth HIA of the public health and equity benefits of reclassifying six low-level crimes of drug possession and petty theft from felonies to misdemeanors. We examined the impact of a 2014 California state ballot initiative to shift resources from mass incarceration to mass prevention such as community-based treatment and support for low-level offenders with mental health and substance use problems, truancy programs, and services for victims of crime.

What we found

If passed, proposition 47 would reduce crime, recidivism, and racial inequities in sentencing, keep families together, and save the state and its counties $600 million to $900 million a year – but only if treatment and rehabilitation programs are fully funded and implemented properly. Its reforms would also allow more than 9,000 people in prison for low-level crimes to apply for reduced sentences or release, and ease the lifetime penalties attached to the stigma of being a convicted felon.

It used to be you do the crime, you do the time, but it’s no longer like that. The felony conviction on your record lasts for a long time. You can’t get a job, you can’t get housing, and you recidivate.

– Formerly incarcerated individual, Los Angeles


HIP took no formal position on the initiative, but proponents used our HIA in their successful campaign for Proposition 47, which in November 2014 passed with almost 60 percent of the vote. California joined the ranks of states – including Wisconsin, where our earlier HIA helped quadruple state funding for treatment alternatives and diversions – that have begun to reform harsh sentencing policies. Since the passage of Prop 47, more than 4,500 people have been released from prison due to reclassification of their sentences from felonies to misdemeanors, California has finally dropped below the Supreme Court-mandated level of prison capacity, and the number of people going to county jails has decreased. To date, over 160,000 people who completed serving time in prison, but have a felony conviction on their record, have applied to have their records expunged.

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