Prop. 47 Spotlights a Bipartisan Trend in Criminal Justice Reform

by Jeremy Loudenback

What do Newt Gingrich and the American Civil Liberties Union of California have in common?

If you guessed shared support for a measure that would reduce some felony drug and theft convictions to misdemeanors, you would be right. Gingrich and the A.C.L.U. have both backed California’s Proposition 47, which would reduce mandatory sentencing for non-serious, nonviolent crimes in some circumstances.

One estimate suggests that more than one in five offenders would see their sentences reduced from felony convictions to misdemeanors with the proposition, which could result in hundreds of millions in savings both across the state and at the county level, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. (A report by the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice estimates that Los Angeles County would see savings of between $99.9 million and $174.8 million and between 2,497 and 7,490 fewer jail beds with Proposition 47.

The measure also provides for increased funding of mental-health, substance-abuse, and anti-recidivism programs, which has been hailed by many former law enforcement officials. However, the San Diego Union-Tribune has been leading the dissent, suggesting that the measure would lead to increased public-safety risks. The state will decide whether or not to adopt the idea in a referendum on November 4.

The ballot measure is part of a growing campaign across the country to reassess tough-on-crime policies, but its bipartisan support also signals a continuing trend of criminal-justice reform aimed at reducing prison populations from both the right and left.

Start with the support of Proposition 47 from former speaker of the House of Representatives Gingrich. In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece with the cheeky title of “What California Can Learn from the Red Sates on Crime and Punishment,” he pointing to ways that Republican-led states like Texas and South Carolina have seen fewer inmates in their prisons and smaller numbers on their balance sheets thanks to similar reform efforts.

Most notably, Texas in 2007 stopped prison expansion plans and instead used those funds for probation and treatment. It has reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, putting a large part of the savings into drug treatment and mental health services. Better yet, Texas’ violent crime rates are the lowest since 1977.

Gingrich probably has an ally in presumptive 2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul. Paul has made the elimination mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders one of his key issues, finding common ground with exiting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). In July, Paul laid out his Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment Act (RESET Act) that would reform crack cocaine sentencing laws in an address before the Urban League. In his likely bid for the nation’s highest office, Paul also hopes to present suggestions about expunging from nonviolent felonies from offenders’ records and reinstating voting rights to citizens convicted of nonviolent felonies.

In a polarized political climate that has been characterized by a lack of productivity at the highest levels of government, the bipartisanship around criminal justice reform has provided a rare reminder of the benefits of compromise, producing in the process the type of strange bedfellows that used to be more common in American politics.

The growing Republican support of criminal-justice reform may also highlight a changing approach to governance on the right. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said that state-level criminal-justice reform efforts and other beneficial policy proposals signal a changing Republican party: “It’s a more mature conservative movement that says we’re ready to start governing.”

Now it’s up to voters to see whether those bipartisan reform efforts will continue in California.