by John Jones, Ella Baker Center
Urgency to end mass incarceration and the criminalization of poor people and people of color is growing. The general public’s awareness that it simply does not make sense to lock up people with substance abuse or mental health issues is setting the stage for important reforms to our justice system.
With this understanding, California voters passed Proposition 47, The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act, almost exactly a year ago by a 60 percent majority. As a community leader with the Bay Area PICO network affiliate Oakland Community Organizations, I was involved in the planning before the proposition was placed on the ballot.
Along with countless others, I mobilized voters to gain support for the proposition. I lobbied elected officials in Sacramento and served as a team leader on an educational phone banking and door knocking campaign, contacting over 21,000 voters in Alameda County and explaining why Prop 47 was important.
While lobbying in Sacramento, I quickly learned why impacted, formerly-incarcerated individuals need to be involved in the political and electoral process. While discussing the merits of Prop 47, the conversation of drug possession and drug use came up.
One of the staffers opined that Prop 47 was a bad deal because of crack cocaine. This individual added that powder cocaine and crack cocaine were two different drugs, crack being the most severe drug, and therefore should not be included in the proposition.
I educated this staffer on the reality that crack is NOT a different drug. It is merely powder cocaine mixed with baking soda and “cooked” in boiling hot water until it achieves its “rock” form. This staffer was stunned!
Urgency to end mass incarceration and the criminalization of poor people and people of color is growing.
The elected official present, upon receiving this revelation, immediately gave support to Prop 47. Ignorance leads to fear, which in turn leads to bad policies.
Prop 47 is a significant step toward reducing the number of people of color and people with substance use issues who are locked up in California. It does this by reclassifying six low level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Reducing these felonies removes barriers to housing and employment.
The following offenses are no longer charged as felonies, and people with previous convictions are now eligible for a retroactive reduction:
- Commercial burglary of a store during business hours (under $950)
- Forgery (amount under $950)
- Fraud/bad checks (amount under $950)
- Theft offenses (PC 487, 484e, 484-666 etc.) (lost amount under $950)
- Receiving stolen property (PC 496(a)) (loss amount under $950)
- Simple drug possession (HS 11377, 11350, 11357)
For those of us who are looking to have our prior felonies changed, as you can imagine, there are a few caveats attached to the initiative. First, you must submit your request to the county you were convicted in.
Prop 47 is a significant step toward reducing the number of people of color and people with substance use issues who are locked up in California.
Second, only a two-year window remains for all requests to be submitted. We have to get them in by Nov. 4, 2017.
If you have a conviction for crimes such as rape, murder or child molestation or are in the sex offender registry, your previous low level Prop 47 convictions will not be eligible to be reclassified.
To date, over 155,000 individuals have participated in the reclassification process. There are an estimated 1 million people with Prop 47 eligible convictions, and not everyone who is eligible is still in California.
This summer I joined the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights as a local organizer. Based in Oakland, we work to advance racial and economic justice to ensure dignity and opportunity for low income people and people of color.
In partnership with allies such as Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), East Bay Community Law Center, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, Bay Area Black Workers Center and others, we are trying to reach every person locally who is eligible for reclassification.
There are an estimated 20,000 people here in Alameda County with prior Prop 47-eligible convictions, and an additional 5,000 people currently on felony probation. In partnership with Assemblymember Rob Bonta, to date we have organized three “Second Chance” reclassification events, which hundreds have attended.
To get the word out, we are hosting informational seminars and trainings, talking to family members outside of the jail, doing outreach on local transit, and calling anyone and everyone we know who might be eligible. Our hope is that by providing clean slate services to people, we can organize with them to build a larger voice of directly impacted people against mass incarceration and criminalization. Call the hotline for confidential assistance: 510-250-7298.
There are an estimated 20,000 people here in Alameda County with prior Prop 47-eligible convictions, and an additional 5,000 people currently on felony probation.
I am a native Californian and moved to Washington state a decade ago. Shortly after, I was arrested and subsequently tried and convicted of a single felony, which carried a sentencing range of 6-12 months. However, Washington, among other states, allows out of state felony convictions to be used as priors to enhance sentencing.
I had zero priors in the state of Washington; however, I have six prior felonies in California. This allowed the judge to sentence me to the statutory maximum of 120 months (10 years).
As a result of my experience in the course of identifying and reclassifying Prop 47-eligible folks in California, I have realized that there very well may be people out of state with Prop 47-eligible convictions. These include potentially eligible individuals who were imprisoned in California but are now living elsewhere or currently incarcerated individuals in out-of-state prisons who are under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Corrections.
More pointedly, there are people locked up in jails or prisons in other states whose priors were possibly used to enhance their sentences. As illustrated by example, my California priors enhanced my sentence in Washington by as much as 114 months (nine and a half years).
It is important to advise incarcerated folks housed out of state with prior California Prop 47-eligible felony convictions to contact their attorney of record (for their current conviction) as soon as possible. Ask them to contact the specific California county (or counties) where their Prop 47 eligible offenses occurred as an effort to reclassify those felonies and consequently petition their judge of record for resentencing.
It is important to advise incarcerated folks housed out of state with prior California Prop 47-eligible felony convictions to contact their attorney of record (for their current conviction) as soon as possible.
If you believe you are eligible, you may also want to consider applying for relief under Penal Code Section 17(b). Discrimination against formerly incarcerated people prevents many from finding living wage jobs, but security services can be a viable employment opportunity. The higher paying security jobs requires having a legal gun permit, and 17(b) restores gun rights.
Prop 47 was a historic victory and is an important step towards our ultimate goal of winning books not bars, jobs not jails, and healthcare not handcuffs.
Yet we also know that it is not an ending place, but a beginning. In order to win dignity and justice for all, we must ensure that we reinvest savings in the communities that have been most harmed by incarceration and criminalization.
Prop 47 was a historic victory and is an important step towards our ultimate goal of winning books not bars, jobs not jails, and healthcare not handcuffs. Yet we also know that it is not an ending place, but a beginning.
As someone with a former felony classified as violent, I am among thousands of people who are not eligible for Prop 47 relief. As we move forward with our ambitions of shrinking the prison system, we must examine the fact that most people who commit violence were themselves survivors of violence who didn’t have access to the resources needed to heal.
Breaking this cycle of trauma means investing more in community spaces of healing and less in a prison system that only further traumatizes.
That’s why we are continuing to work on more parole and sentencing reforms that will benefit all communities, especially low-income communities of color who have been most harmed by incarceration and criminalization.
Prop 47 is the first rung on the proverbial ladder to end mass incarceration. As members of a representative form of democracy, we must fight on all fronts to correct the ills of a broken, evil system. It is my hope that we build upon the momentum created by the passing of Prop 47, yet dare to dream and fight in a manner that is bigger, bolder and more impactful.
Prop 47 is the first rung on the proverbial ladder to end mass incarceration.
John Jones is a local organizer at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. As a formerly incarcerated individual, John has been heavily engaged in ending mass incarceration, reducing violence, enabling economic dignity, and diverting funding from law enforcement agencies towards effective community-based programs and services. He can be reached at 1970 Broadway, Suite 1125, Oakland CA 94612 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.