Fresno, Tulare County DAs fight against Prop 47 fallout

Fresno, Tulare County DAs fight against Prop 47 fallout Smittcamp, Ward push to amend Proposition 47 to allow prosecutors to enact tougher penalties, longer sentences for drug addiction and theft crimes

Darren Fraser
Published January 24, 2024  • 
11:30 am

FRESNO – Both district attorneys for Fresno County and Tulare County are backing a ballot initiative for the November election, which they believe will undo the unintended consequences brought about by Proposition 47.

“We have more drug addicts than we’ve ever had,” Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp told ABC30 News on Jan. 16. “We have people committing more theft crimes, more violent crimes, more domestic violence and child abuse.”

She added, “California has gone mad, really. The lack of accountability and responsibility is affecting everything.”

According to its proponents, the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act (HDATRA) will undo the unintended consequences of Proposition 47. Supporters of the initiative are in the process of gathering the 540,000 signatures required for it to be placed on the November ballot. 

If passed, HDATRA would help undo these “consequences” by enacting a new class of crime called a treatment-mandated felony. This gives prosecutors the option to charge an individual with a felony for hard drug possession if the offender has two prior drug convictions. A person charged with a treatment-mandated felony has the option of entering treatment or going to jail for drug possession. Anyone charged who completes treatment will have the charge expunged and serve no jail time.

The Act would also introduce numerous laws concerning fentanyl. Unlike other drugs – cocaine, heroin, meth – that have been popular for decades, fentanyl is relatively new to the drug scene. So new, in fact, that Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said during a recent town hall meeting in Dinuba that certain gun/drug laws pre-date fentanyl’s emergence. 

For example, an individual who is charged with heroin possession will receive additional jail time if that person is holding a loaded and working firearm. No such provision exists for fentanyl.

HDATRA would rectify that situation. It would also provide judges more leeway when it comes time to sentencing individuals who traffic in hard drugs who are armed with a firearm, allowing judges the option of sending these people to state prison.

Additionally, the Act would reinstate penalties for drug dealers whose products kill or seriously injure users.

Supporters of the initiative argue that Proposition 47 tacitly encourages theft because there are no serious consequences for the thieves. HDATRA increases penalties for repeat offenders. On a related issue, it would also beef up penalties for individuals and mobs who participate in smash and grab thefts.

PROPOSITION 47

Voters approved Proposition 47 on Nov. 5, 2014. The intent of the proposition was to reduce California’s exploding prison population by reducing some non-violent property crimes to misdemeanors. The proposition also classified simple drug offenses into misdemeanors and allowed courts the discretion to reduce prior drug convictions to misdemeanors.

District Attorney Ward shares Smittcamp’s sentiments. At a town hall meeting held in Dinuba on Jan. 13, Ward said what Proposition 47 did was decrease the number of individuals who can be charged with a crime. He said because courts were no longer charging individuals with felony drug possession, there was no incentive for these people to seek treatment programs that were available through California’s drug courts, which offered offenders treatment instead of incarceration.

“Our drug court has all but died after Proposition 47. The decriminalization of the possession of drugs has had a horrible, tragic, humanitarian crisis on our streets,” said Ward.

Proposition 47 was the result of the May 23, 2011 decision by the Supreme Court to uphold a California district court’s order that overcrowding in California’s 33 prisons – in 2009, the prison system held roughly twice the 80,000 inmates prisons were intended to house – violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. After the state challenged the court’s finding, the Supreme Court sided with the district court and ordered that California must reduce its inmate population by 33,000 in two years.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) published a report in March 2022. According to the CJCJ, since 2016, because of Proposition 47, the state has saved $591 million due to reductions in California’s prison population.

A 2018 study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that recidivism rates decreased due to Proposition 47. According to the study, the recidivist rate for individuals convicted prior to Proposition 47 was 1.8% higher than for individuals arrested after the proposition took effect.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Proposition 36, which was passed in 2000, allowed individuals who were convicted of nonviolent drug possession charges to enter treatment instead of going to jail. Proposition 47, passed 14 years later, piggybacked Proposition 36, in a manner of speaking. 

Proposition 47 reduced felony property theft sentences, including check forging, to misdemeanors if the amount of Propositionerty stolen or the forged check was $950 or less. Proposition 47 also reduced prior convictions, meaning individuals no longer faced additional jail because of prior back acts.

Proposition 36 ordered drug treatment diversion; Proposition 47 did not. As a result, critics of the measure, including Smittcamp and Ward, argue that criminals and drug addicts no longer have any incentive to change their behavior.

DÉJÀ VU

Proponents of HDATRA argue that stiffer penalties and longer jail sentences are required to reduce crime. But they are uniformly silent regarding the prospect of California’s prison population reaching the tipping point, again, due to an influx of individuals convicted for non-violent crimes, crimes involving theft or damages of $950 or less, or drug possession convictions where the perpetrator did not carry a firearm – in short, the felony crimes that Proposition 47 reduced to misdemeanors.

The Times reached out to Smittcamp’s office regarding the scenario that HDATRA may result in prison overpopulation once more, but received no reply as of report.

Darren Fraser
Reporter