Inmates walk free in Contra Costa County after Prop 47 passage
on November 15, 2014
Contra Costa County Judge Terri Mockler ordered the release of 15 inmates Friday in an attempt to comply with new mandates set forth by Proposition 47.
Mockler addressed one member of the group as she stood in a tinted glass enclosure, referred to as “the box” by attorneys, and observed her court proceedings through a metal grate. The woman’s felony drug possession conviction had just been converted to a misdemeanor. She had little time left behind bars.
“Good luck, ma’am,” Mockler said. “You’ll be released later today.”
Nearly 60 percent of California voters endorsed Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, on Election Day. In doing so, they ordered counties across the state to relieve pressure on a costly and overcrowded prison system by lessening penalties on certain low-level, non-violent offenses.
The Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office has led the charge to petition on behalf of inmates who, since the measure abruptly took effect, are now eligible to be set free.
“We’re working as hard as we can to get through as many cases as we can, as quickly as we can,” said Robin Lipetzky, Chief Public Defender for the county.
“The immediate concern we have is getting people out of custody and resentenced,” Lipetzky said. “Once we’re finished with that we’ll turn to providing relief to people who have already served their sentences.”
Under the new measure, eight property and drug felonies or “wobblers” – crimes that can be charged either as felonies or misdemeanors at the discretion of prosecutors – became straight misdemeanors, and therefore subject only to jail sentences of less than a year.
The crimes include receipt of stolen property, forgery, fraud, shoplifting, and burglaries where the value of the stolen goods is less than $950. Possession of cannabis, methamphetamine, and most other controlled substances without intent to sell are also now misdemeanors.
The new law, which took effect the day after the election and applied retroactively to all past crimes, had broad and immediate implications for law enforcement, court officers, and convicts statewide.
“We’ve had a constant stream of calls from the county jail,“ said Deputy Public Defender Ellen McDonnell, who is managing her office’s effort to triage inquiries. “I screen their cases as quickly as I can to see if anyone’s qualified.”
People convicted of any of the eight former felonies are eligible for resentencing. Many of those still incarcerated face the possibility of immediate release by a simple petition of the court.
The Friday following the election, public defenders successfully petitioned for the release of 35 inmates. This Friday another 15 were let go. Next Friday, they will continue to chip away at their docket of roughly 100 cases.
Prosecutors estimate that thousands of offenders from the county will ultimately be affected, since those who have already completed their sentences can also seek redress. They can apply to have their criminal records changed to reflect that they are now only misdemeanants and can have most of their privileges as non-felons restored, excluding the right to carry firearms.
Certain priors, such as sex abuse and other serious violent crimes, will render offenders ineligible for Prop 47 resentencing.
“We’re in the process of pulling all the files, looking at all the charges,” said Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson, who had earlier campaigned against the measure, calling it a threat to public safety.
The district attorney’s office is also working with law enforcement agencies to determine what the new legislation means for cops.
In a Nov. 5 memo, Peterson explained that crimes listed in the measure are now mainly cite-and-release cases, not felony arrests. In the field, police will need to assess whether the value of stolen property is greater than $950.
Police departments across the county are adjusting on the fly.
“We’ve done some trainings and we’ve pushed some information out to our officers,” said Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. “It’s likely going to take a little while before we know what the real outcome looks like.”
Magnus said he wasn’t concerned about inmates being released back onto Richmond streets, citing the relatively small number of low-level offenders that Contra Costa County sends to jail in the first place.
“I don’t know that we’re going to see any dramatic impact on crime,” Magnus said. “Like most of these things, it’s not going to be everything that supporters are hoping for and it’s also not going to do all the dire things that the opponents are fearful will happen.”
Anyone believing they or a friend or relative may be eligible for Proposition 47 relief should call Contra Costa County Deputy Public Defender Ellen McDonnell at (925) 335-8075 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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