California Just Took a Big Stand Against the War on Drugs

Source: AP
Source: AP

Californians went to the polls Tuesday and scored a big win over the War on Drugs — specifically in the form of lighter drug sentencing.

Proposition 47, which drops some felony crimes to misdemeanors (thereby reducing sentence lengths for offenders), passed with 58% of the vote. Importantly, those already behind bars for the crimes included will be allowed to petition for new sentences.

"The overwhelming support for this reform sends a powerful message nationally, demonstrating that voters are not just ready but eager to reduce prison populations in ways that can enhance public safety," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Sacramento Bee.

It's a direct challenge to the War on Drugs approach of tossing offenders behind bars for as long as possible. That policy has packed prisons across the state and the country, with minorities (especially black men) locked up to a disproportionate degree.

The background: The list of crimes Prop 47 covers includes drug possession, along with crimes like theft, forgery and credit fraud when less than $950 is involved. It even pertains to people who were previously imprisoned under the state's three strikes law, according to the Los Angeles Times.

There was never much uncertainty over whether it would pass, since it led in every poll conducted since it was placed on the ballot, according to the Huffington Post. The group in favor raised more than $7 million during election season, compared to just $50,000 for the opposition.

That's thanks to some big donors and celebrity supporters. Billionaire George Soros and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings poured in money, while everyone from Newt Gingrich to Jay Z spoke out in favor. You probably can't find a weirder political coalition than that.

What it means: California has long struggled with overcrowded prisons and sky-high incarceration spending, which Prop 47 will help alleviate. In fact, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office reported that the measure will save the state and individual counties "hundreds of millions of dollars annually." 

That money will go toward education and drug treatment meant to help reduce the crime rate to go along with the lighter sentences. The move away from sentencing mirrors a changing mindset against the War on Drugs on the federal level as well.

It's a bold experiment for a state that needs to be bold — California is actually under Supreme Court order to release more inmates. If this works, it could set an example that other states can follow through on.

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Matt Connolly

Matt has written for Mother Jones, the Washington Examiner and Chicago Public Radio among many others. He's a resident of Washington, D.C., but much like Bruce Springsteen and pork roll he is a product of New Jersey.

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