California goes from "tough on crime" to "let them go"

SAN FRANCISCO -- About 2.5 million Americans are spending this Thanksgiving in prison. That's one out of every 100 adults. But in courtrooms across California, felony charges are being dropped.

After three decades of getting tough on crime, California voters pulled a U-turn by passing Proposition 47. For Markku Heikkila, it means five felony convictions for drug possession can be wiped from his record.

"I got a second chance, almost a 'get out of jail free' card," said Heikkila.

Prop 47 downgraded drug possession and many non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. That means lighter sentences and possibly no jail time for about 40,000 people a year. Thousands more who are now serving sentences will be released early -- even prior felony convictions can be expunged.

San Francisco's District Attorney and former police chief George Gascon backed Prop 47.

"Under the umbrella of getting tough on crime, we were doing things that made no sense." said Gascon. "People that we were incarcerating, 60 percent of those people were being re-incarcerated within three years and the people continue to re-offend because we're not dealing with the problem."

Sending fewer people to prison will save the state between $750 million and $1.25 billion over five years. That money is to be spent on mental health, truancy prevention and drug treatment programs.

"Instead of being stuck in a cycle, there's actually a way to break out of the cycle now," said Heikkila.

Since the 1980s California has built and filled 22 new prisons. Prop 47 will be judged not only on how it lowers the prison population but also on whether it lowers crime.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.