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by Peter Moskos

March 2, 2015

Policing in California, post Prop. 47

Being in NYC, I miss a lot of what happens west of the Mississippi (and sometimes even west of the Hudson). So I haven’t really been following California’s Proposition 47.

Recently I posted about a minor increase in property crime in LA, which was both news to me and made intuitive sense. Sure, it sounds logical to focus law enforcement on drug dealers rather than drug addicts. And who can be against "treatment" (whatever that means). But a block full of east coast heroin junkies or west coast meth heads is not a good block.

Very much in the spirit of Broken Windows, police need to maintain order. And the threat of arrest is key. It's not that you can or should arrest every drug addict, but sometimes somebody needs to spend a night in jail. I couldn't easily build drug distribution cases for prosecution, but if I guy wouldn't close up shop when asked repeatedly, I could use my discretionary power to make a street-corner drug dealer spend a night in jail. On paper it was just a bullshit small-scale drug possession arrest. But the actual crime was more serious.

Or take stolen goods. One could argue, for instance, that possession of a few scavenged copper pipes or wires isn't that big of a deal. But that drug-addict "recycler" is systematically destroying the housing stock of an entire neighborhood. The odds that somebody in possession of stolen goods is doing it for the first and last time is pretty slim. So the hammer of punishment may need to be disproportionate to the individual crime.

In general, I support any attempt to reduce our prison population and also to move towards a more rational and less criminal drug policy. Prop 47 was supposed to do that. I probably would have voted for it. And it may work in the end. But there are problems now. And it certainly is in the best interests of those who advocate for drug and prison reform to follow through and fix what is broken. Without focusing on behavior and drug distribution, simply decriminalizing hard-drug possession can be the worst of all possible worlds. (I'm reminded of how Kurt Schmoke set the logical policy of "harm reduction" back by a decade with a failed attempt at "drug decriminalization" in 1990s Baltimore.)

So what's going on in California? I asked a cop friend out west about the impact of Prop. 47 on policing. His reply is very insightful:
I do think there has been a noticeable change in terms of diminished felony arrests, although the long-ranging impact of prop 47 may be more problematic. While it may have been structured to simply reduce penalties in order to alleviate prison crowding, I think there will be a negative outcome in terms of how low-level crimes affect communities.

Basically, I don’t think the public realized the full extent of property and theft crimes which they were voting to essentially decriminalize. For instance, felony "wobblers" such as forgery and fraud where the values don’t exceed $950 have been dropped to misdemeanors, as well as shoplifting or theft charges where the values of the stolen property don’t exceed $950.

If I’m not mistaken, possession of any controlled substance (for personal use) is now a misdemeanor. For me I see a problematic thread, in that where I work (and live) there is a distinct nexus between methamphetamine use, and theft, and particularly multiple incidents of forgery and check fraud. There is a distinct link between methamphetamine use and theft -- at least from what I have observed where I work.

And I deal with a lot of "speeders" (for lack of a better word) who, if taken into custody, typically have a ton of stolen property in their possession, a violation which has also been dropped down to a misdemeanor. There is a factual interrelation between methamphetamine and organized theft rings in the area I work, and I just don’t think these people are going to show up for court dates on citations. I think they will continue doing what they are doing, which is ripping people off over and over as opportunities arise.

I do not think that all drugs are the same, and I am a big believer in rehabilitation, but methamphetamine wreaks exponential havoc on people who use it. I haven’t seen too many meth users successfully "bounce back" from meth addiction -- and I have seen a lot of extremely damaged people, spiritually eviscerated by this drug, who are now zombies, lurching through town, resorting to scrappy thefts and break-ins and strange, convoluted schemes of identity theft (which are HARD to investigate and prove) and which often involve elements of forgery and fraud.

There are lots of victims of these property crimes who are very disheartened when they get ripped off -- it is a big deal for them. On a more practical note, Merchants (often small businesses) cannot believe I just "cite and release" the people who steal hundreds of dollars of worth of merchandise from their stores. I should also clarify that people who are arrested for most "misdemeanors" are typically issued a citation and are released at the scene (with proper ID), but it requires a felony charge or outstanding warrants for a suspect to go to jail. Receiving a paper citation and being released at the scene does not seem to have the same "heft" as sitting behind bars (usually for a few hours or a day or night) before you see a judge.

While this may seem simplistic, I do think that jail, in the most basic sense, can be an effective "time out" for folks who have actually been "bad." I don’t mean to sound reductive, but I do feel it’s beneficial for criminals to face an immediate consequence for some of the nasty stuff they do, so they will at least consider that they should stop doing it. At the very least, getting booked, losing some personal freedom, and spending some time behind bars is an immediate consequence for wrong-doing.

I do see that prop 47 does essentially "streamline" the process of arraignments and preliminary hearings, in that the DA usually drops a lot of felonies to misdemeanors anyway, BUT I still don’t think that voters realized what they were voting for.

I also feel if they are going to reduce penalties for all drugs, it would be beneficial to beef up various resources and rehab services for people who are struggling with their addictions. The transient population I deal with struggles with many substance issues, and I don’t judge them for their coping strategies, but I would posit that their addictions are not "helping" them out of despair, but further manifesting it. There are a LOT of people who go to jail, maybe for petty stuff, who spend a little time indoors and out of their routines of self-destruction, whose lives are actually saved and possibly extended because of the forced "time-outs."

I am not saying that jail time is a vacation or that it is a permanent corrective measure, but I do think it has some rehabilitative value. I am open-minded but I don’t think prop 47 is a good model.


Anonymous said...

"... it requires a felony charge ... for a suspect to go to jail."

I just don't understand this. Misdemeanants got to jail all the time. I mean, speaking personally, I was popped for a DUI when I was young and dumb in the '90s, and I spent the night in jail.

Is the problem the law? Or local jail capacity? Because the latter problem isn't quick or cheap to fix, but it isn't the same thing. And if there is a jail capacity problem, that felony arrest won't do you any good anyway.

Moskos said...

DUI and domestic violence are kind of exceptions to the usual rule that misdemeanors don't got to jail.

It also depends where. In Maryland police have to personally witness a misdemeanor. In NYC, cops can arrest for a misdemeanor just like any other crime.

Another factor is if the prosecutor says he or she won't prosecute for certain crimes, cops may (or may not) stop making arrests for that crime.