Some law enforcement officials in San Mateo County are looking at ways to mitigate the uptick in crime they believe could result from the recent passage of Proposition 47.
That's the word from San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer, who said the new law makes it harder for authorities to intervene in the criminal careers of offenders and removes incentives for criminals to participate in rehabilitation programs.
Adopted by California voters in the Nov. 4 general election, Prop 47 requires misdemeanor sentences for certain drug and property crimes that were previously considered felonies. The law doesn't apply to sex offenders or persons with previous convictions for violent crimes or other serious offences.
Prop 47 is expected to save hundreds of millions of dollars on incarceration costs, supporters say, and it requires the state to spend that money on intervention and rehabilitation programs, along with services for crime victims.
Hundreds of county jail inmates around the state were reportedly released after the passage of Prop 47, and thousands more may now be eligible for resentencing.
Manheimer said the new law is especially problematic because it comes on the heels of prison realignment, a state policy that addresses California's prison overcrowding problem by transferring low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails. Because counties often can't afford to house the inmates, many are released back into their communities, Manheimer explained.
One result of the proposition's language pertaining to drugs is that possessing date rape drugs is now a misdemeanor, according to Manheimer.
"To make date rape drugs a misdemeanor boggles the mind," the chief said, "What compassionate person would say possession of date rape drugs should be a misdemeanor?"
Prop 47 deprives law enforcement of tools for rehabilitating low-level offenders, Manheimer said, because somebody facing a misdemeanor charge and no jail time will likely not be easily compelled to enter programs designed to prevent recidivism.
Proposition 47 supporter Marina Bell argues that the U.S. criminal justice system has failed to achieve low recidivism rates, and the new law will reduce recidivism by keeping first-time offenders out of overcrowded prisons, where she said the "horrific" conditions are rarely conducive to rehabilitation.
"The best way to create a career criminal is to send a first-time, low-level offender to jail," Bell said.
A doctoral student currently working toward a criminology degree, Bell has experience working with career criminals at San Quentin State Prison, where she's taught college-level classes and volunteered as a counselor for the California Reentry Program.
Although Bell and Manheimer are on opposite sides of the Prop 47 debate, they have some points of common ground. When asked what advice Bell would give Manheimer to reduce recidivism, the criminologist emphasized the importance of making sure police officers are better informed about resources that can help citizens who are at risk of re-offending.
Manheimer already advocates arming police officers with the ability to connect citizens in crisis to the resources they need, and says police are often the public's first point of contact with the county's social safety net.
Bell also stressed the importance of accurately evaluating arrest reports so police have good data on who is committing specific crimes and why. "If you reach out to the wrong population or offer the wrong services, that makes no sense," Bell noted.