Reclassifying minor crimes is proving to be an effective way to combat America’s mass incarceration crisis, but some additional measures are needed to ensure the strategy’s success.
Crime Reclassification: A Success Story from the Golden State
Toni Hunter was in a California prison for 20 years for various counts of petty theft before legislation granted her early release.
Now taking classes at Sacramento City College, Hunter expects success job hunting after graduation because she now does not have a felony on her record.
Hunter was one of the thousands of offenders released due to California passing Proposition 47, which aimed to decrease the state’s growing prison population by reclassifying sentences as minor offenses. Many felony sentences were reduced to misdemeanors, granting early release.
Of the 3,067 inmates released via Prop 47, passed November 2014, only 14 have returned to prison – a recidivism rate of .005 percent that pales in comparison to the statewide rate of 61 percent.
California’s proposition is an indicator that reclassifying minor crimes, including downgrading some felony charges to misdemeanors and cutting jail time for other misdemeanors, could significantly decrease incarceration rates.
The Case for Reclassifying Crimes
A report from the American Bar Association explains that United States prisons are largely occupied by those who have committed minor infractions. Two major reforms could work to get these people out of prison: reclassifying minor crimes and diverting inmates to rehabilitation programs.
The report mentions that New York, which depopulated its prisons by 20 percent from 1999 to 2009, and Texas, which has stabilized the growth of its prisons since 2007, are both seeing the lowest state crime rates in decades.
Reclassifying crimes would be a “smart on crime” approach that would not take a toll on public safety, the report concludes.
A Charleston Law report similarly concludes that reclassifying crimes does not decrease public safety after examining many states’ efforts to reduce charges and penalties.
The report cites several examples of successful reclassifications, such as California’s establishment of pilot programs that allow people convicted of driving without a license to serve home detention sentences instead of a jail term. Massachusetts was also cited as a good example after they began allowing District Attorneys to treat certain misdemeanors – including operating with a suspended license, disturbing the peace, shoplifting and marijuana possession – as civil infractions.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers analyzed the cost savings facilitated by reclassifying crimes and concluded that local and state governments could save over one billion dollars per year by reclassifying crimes.
The Downsides of Reclassifying Crimes
Proposition 47 has yielded unexpected consequences for California’s criminal justice system. With nonviolent crimes now classified as misdemeanors instead of felonies, criminals are having a much easier time repeating crimes. Property crime is up eight percent from last year, and auto thefts are up over 20 percent.
Additionally, police officers have stopped arresting many criminals for minor crimes, like drug possession, because of the limited consequences the arrest will yield.
With no threat of felony charges or lengthy sentences, criminals are opting into drug court and rehabilitation programs much less. Enrollment in drug court programs has decreased 50 percent since the passing of Prop 47.
This is problematic as drug courts have proven to be more effective than incarceration; the National Association of Drug Court Professionals reports that as many as 75 percent of those graduating from adult criminal drug court will not be rearrested for committing further crimes within their lifetimes.
Additionally, studies have shown that those who are forced/required to complete drug court programs are just as likely to complete the program successfully as those who volunteer for it. So, these programs could be mandated as an alternative to prison sentences.
Reclassifying minor crimes is a significant way to decrease prison population rates, and therefore it must be seriously considered as an option in the rest of the country. However, reclassifying drug possession will do more harm than good if users do not get the help that they need. Therefore, reclassifying crimes should be accompanied by mandating drug courts and other abuse programs in lieu of lengthy prison sentences.
When reclassifying crimes, it’s important not to eliminate the deterrence of crime without also providing more treatment as an alternative.