An experiment has been underway in California since November 2014, when voters approved Proposition 47: put fewer lawbreakers in jail without increasing crime. The measure converted a list of nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors, which translated into little or no jail time for crimes such as low-value theft and possession of hard drugs.
Police didn't like Prop 47 when it was on the ballot, and now many are convinced they were right to oppose it.
In Huntington Beach, a seaside city in Orange County, Officer Brad Smith says Prop 47 means more drug addicts are out, living on the street. He pulls his patrol car up behind a case in point — a silver Volvo that serves as the home of two young heroin addicts. The officer seems to have a cordial relationship with them, even though he arrested them a few weeks earlier.
"We found heroin in the car," Smith says. "We also found stolen property from three or four victims."
The couple say the stolen property was stashed in their car by an acquaintance. Still, the presence of heroin and stolen property would have been enough for felony charges — before Prop 47. Not anymore.
"We booked them to our jail, and they were released before my partner and I finished our report," Smith says.
In some California jurisdictions, police aren't even bothering with the booking. They'll issue citations, along with a court date, and let people go — something some cops derisively call "catch and release."
Sierra Meysami, one of the people living in that Volvo, freely acknowledges that she'd be behind bars if it weren't for Prop 47. But she thinks it's a change for the better.
"Jail, I think it's just such an intense consequence — it's too much for, let's say, drug addicts," she says. The 23-year-old says people have to understand how hard it is to kick heroin. "I used to cry right before I'd use, just because I felt like I had to use in order to feel normal."
In Meysami's experience, jail is no cure for addiction. The heroin is still available — it's just more expensive.
Prop 47 is meant to guide more people like Meysami into programs such as drug treatment. But prosecutors and police say it's harder to get addicts into programs without the threat of prison time.
And in the meantime, police say, more drug users are out and at liberty to steal. Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy says property crimes jumped in his city in the 12 months following the passage of Prop 47: auto thefts up 21 percent; larceny from vehicles up 30 percent; garage burglaries up 33 percent.
"A lot of that we attribute to those lower-level drug offenders who are now out and trying to support their habit," Handy says.
Defenders of Prop 47 say police are cherry-picking the data. Will Matthews is manager of public affairs for Californians for Safety and Justice, the group that sponsored Prop 47. In an email to NPR, he pointed to other California cities where property crime has gone down. "Would these police chiefs you're talking to give Prop 47 credit for reducing crime in those communities?" he asks.
Statewide crime rates for California aren't available yet, and criminologists generally say they need more than a year of data to come to any solid conclusions.
Pro-reform forces also worry about police intransigence in the face of change.
"I've certainly heard perspectives that perhaps there are some in law enforcement that are still running an opposition campaign to Prop 47," says Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the criminal justice and drug policy director of the ACLU of California.
Dooley-Sammuli wrote an analysis of the first year of implementation of Prop 47 that called on local jurisdictions to use the money saved on incarceration to fund alternatives, such as drug treatment. The report also flagged "a disappointing level of resistance from some in law enforcement."
But other supporters of reform say it's worth keeping an eye on localized crime spikes.
"I don't think it is right to just brush it off as being nothing," says Magnus Lofstrom, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. He's also waiting for broader statistics on crime rates under Prop 47, but he recalls that another prisoner release from California prisons a few years ago did push up the number of auto thefts.
"It is important to recognize that it might have an impact on crime, it might very well put some upward pressure on crime rates," Lofstrom says, adding that people need to remember that crime rates have been at historic lows.
He says it's also up to local jurisdictions to adapt to the new reality. "The key ... is to think what are then the alternative strategies, crime-preventive strategies."
Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy says that's what he's trying to do.
"For us as police officers, the old way of handling that was just putting them in jail. But we can't do that anymore, so we're looking for alternative ways to get them off the street, get them the treatment they need," he says. One example of this is a full-time officer dedicated to working with the city's growing homeless population.
Still, Handy doubts the public will be happy if it turns out the price of incarceration reform is more petty crime.
"The whole 'broken windows' theory of policing has been getting a lot of criticism," Handy says. "But we evolved to that because that's what society wanted. They didn't want to deal with all those crimes anymore."
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