SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) — A ballot measure passed by voters last week has already freed hundreds of inmates from California county jails after their felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors.
Sheriffs across the state immediately began implementing the Proposition 47, which calls for treating shoplifting, forgery, fraud, petty theft and possession of small amounts of drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
Two-dozen suspects who were being held on those charges walked out of Sacramento County jail two days after 58 percent of voters approved the initiative on Tuesday. They were among the more than 400 Sacramento jail inmates expected to be freed while they await trial on reduced charges that in many cases will no longer keep people behind bars after arrests.
Bay Area Judges barely even waited for election results to be certified before resentencing inmates and reducing charges, according to the Bay Area News Group.
On Friday, two Contra Costa judges signed orders for the release of seven inmates serving sentences across the state for crimes committed in the East Bay county. Contra Costa Public Defender Robin Lipetzky told the Bay Area News Group that about 35 inmates had been released as of Friday from the county jail after some of them had already served enough time to be set free with reduced charges, while others were released on lower or no bail.
The state corrections department also began notifying nearly 4,800 inmates in California prisons that they can petition judges to have their felony convictions and sentences reduced. Convicts serving time for the felonies in local jails can also petition for release.
Prison reform advocates celebrated the passing of the ballot measure saying it will drastically reduce overcrowded prisons while cutting the rate of mass incarceration.
The measure intends to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in reduced prison and jail costs. Under the initiative, savings will be diverted to rehabilitation programs intended to reduce crime, though the programs will lag far behind the criminals' release.
The initiative is projected to keep about 4,000 inmates out of state prisons each year, more than enough to help the state meet a population cap ordered by federal judges.
Critics predicted, however, that the measure will hurt public safety.
Implementing the ballot measure so quickly will create a lag between the release of criminals and ramping up the programs intended to help them, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections.
Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for the group Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which backed the initiative, said lower-level offenders don't deserve lengthy jail or prison terms even if they can't immediately benefit from crime prevention programs.
Proponents will be watching to make sure the corrections board, which is dominated by law enforcement officials, doesn't siphon the money off for jail programs, or that the truancy money isn't used for more school police officers, Harris said.
Mims, the Fresno County sheriff, is concerned that fewer criminals will use rehabilitation programs. Previously, district attorneys frequently reduced felonies to misdemeanors if criminals agreed to drug treatment.
Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully sees another unintended consequence.
Generally, only suspects arrested on felonies are required to submit DNA samples to a database that can be used to connect them to other crimes. Her office recently built a murder conviction around just such a link to a suspect whose DNA was on file because of a felony drug arrest.
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