Reporters Duped by Prop. 47 Critics Fail to Hold Officials Accountable

Wayne Hughes Jr.
Former Executive of Public Storage and Founder of American Commercial Equities, which includes properties in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. In 2011, he founded Serving California, a nonprofit that facilitates healing for military families, crime victims, and inmates looking to rebuild their lives. He has contributed to the Prop 47 campaign.

You know what’s worst than bad reporting? Using bad reporting as the source for your own reporting.

On Monday, a column in Fox & Hounds Daily disparages Proposition 47, the popular 2014 California voter initiative, based on various news accounts to date. But if the author looked closer at what is happening in California, he would realize that he’d fallen into the same trap of speculative and politicized reporting that has not only misinformed readers about the reform law but also misses the point about what will determine its success: how local officials respond.

Let’s remember the facts: Proposition 47 was enacted in November with 60% voter support, underscoring Californians’ resolve to fix a broken justice and prison system. What did Prop. 47 do? It changed simple low-level drug possession, and five petty-theft offenses (under $950) from felonies to misdemeanors.

What it did not do is decriminalize these offenses nor take away law enforcement’s ability to hold low-level offenders accountable. Someone who commits a misdemeanor offense may be arrested, detained until trial and jailed for a year if convicted (or sentenced to mandatory drug treatment and probation supervision). If they break the law twice, they can face motions to revoke probation and multiple misdemeanor counts, meaning multiple years in jail.

While it didn’t strip away authority to stop low-level offenders, Prop 47 has revealed what has been happening in local criminal justice systems for decades: dysfunctional practices that fail to use law enforcement resources wisely or stop the cycle of crime. If some officials are simply letting people walk for low-level offenses because they don’t like Prop 47, that is their choice, not anything to do with the law. And if the media has no interest in challenging officials’ practices, that’s bad reporting.

Prop. 47, like other measures that upend the status quo and wrest power away from institutional stakeholders, was intensely opposed by some law enforcement. Those opponents have never stopped criticizing the law, but now their failure to use the tools already at their disposal is getting a free ride in the media.

Even the venerable Washington Post, famed for its Watergate investigation and exposing other government corruption, was duped, writing a story riddled with misrepresentations and only quoting officials who opposed Prop. 47 before it was even law. Don’t wait around for a Pulitzer on that one.

The media and some in law enforcement also fail to point out to the public that there is no correlation between higher incarceration rates and reduced crime. California has seen prior periods of much higher crime rates at a time when the state was throwing billions at incarceration. Other states have made similar reforms to Prop 47 and seen incarceration reductions with no impact on crime rates.

This is about local practices, not Prop 47 or other long overdue and common sense state law changes. Here are some options locals have had for a long time: using risk assessment to determine who should be arrested and detained; investing in smart prosecution strategies to target repeat offenders; reducing pretrial detention so more jail space can hold high-risk individuals; using supervised probation; expanding mental health and drug treatment; the list goes on.

New approaches and investments are what voters want, not returning to the days of spending $63,000 per year to lock someone up for a nonviolent, low-level offense. But some in law enforcement – and much of the media that cover it – are stuck in the past, failing the citizens they serve who are hungry for a more honest dialogue about safety and new, smarter ways to break the cycle of crime.

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