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Prop 57 Explained

What You Need To Know About Proposition 57 And Its Potential For Criminal Justice Reform

Photo by tarasov via Shutterstock

By now, you've probably seen your fair share of advertisements advocating both for and against Proposition 57. On one side, Governor Jerry Brown, the California Democratic Party, the ACLU and a litany of civil liberties and prison advocacy groups argue that Prop. 57 would reform an overburdened and overcrowded state criminal justice system. On the other side, many law enforcement groups, the California District Attorneys Association and several other interests argue that, if passed, Prop. 57 would lead the state's prisons to release dangerous criminals.

Technically, Proposition 57 modifies state law in two ways. The first is a relatively straightforward attempt to undo a 16-year-old error California voters made back in 2000, when they passed Proposition 21. Prop. 21 modified state criminal proceedings to allow prosecutors, not judges, to decide whether or not a a minor (as young as 14) would be tried in criminal court as a juvenile or as an adult. Until 2000, that power rested with judges alone.

Since 2003, Human Rights Watch reports that more than 10,000 minors have been tried as adults in California. Of these, approximately 7,200 were filed directly by county prosecutors, without any oversight from a judge. Prop. 57 would return the power to decide whether or not someone who is younger than 18 should be tried as an adult back to judges alone. Prosecutors may still make an argument that a defendant should be tried as an adult, but the decision to do so will ultimately rest with the judge.

The second component of Prop. 57 is more complicated, and concerns modifying the way prisoners in California can apply for parole and release. In short, Prop. 57 allows non-violent but felonious prisoners who have completed the "base" sentence for the crime they committed under California law to apply for parole. Often when people are sentenced to lengthy prison terms, their sentence is affected by extra provisions intended to complement the base term. People can get extra time if they have prior convictions, are affiliated with a gang, etc.—things that have nothing to do with the crime that was actually committed.

Prop. 57 would also allow inmates to earn good-behavior credits by participating in rehabilitation programs operated by the state corrections department, or through educational achievements.

The end goal of Prop. 57 is to reduce the number of people in California's overcrowded prison system, in accordance with a 2011 Supreme Court decision that said the state's packed prisons were a violation of the U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment (no cruel and unusual punishment). Proponents of Prop. 57 say that, by allowing non-violent felons a better chance at parole, the ballot measure will help California achieve its goal of reducing its prison population.

Opponents, however, balk at the claim that Prop. 57 applies to just "non-violent" prisoners. They argue that Prop. 57's wording would allow criminals like sex offenders and human traffickers a better chance to go free. They also argue that the measure will increase crime, as fewer people will be kept behind bars.

It's critical, however, to remember that once a person becomes eligible for parole, they are not simply released "into your neighborhood" (as opponents argue). For someone to be released, they still need go though an appeals process and before a panel of judges to make the case that they are not a threat. Sex offenders are also explicitly prohibited from any of California's early release programs, including those that would be implemented under Prop. 57.