By Marty Graham
Police Chief Ed Aceves has a grim message for La Mesa: the Nov. 4 passage of Proposition 47 — which will cause thousands of people convicted of property crimes and drug possession to be released from jails and prisons without supervision or support — means there may be an increase in property crimes.
“These are the potential impacts that can happen for law enforcement and the community,” Aceves explains. “I felt it was appropriate to educate people on what may be coming.”
La Mesa had recently begun winning its war on property crimes such as burglaries, petty thefts and the auto break-ins that particularly plague the neighborhoods where apartment buildings are prominent. But Prop. 47 takes away some of the legal tools police had relied on.
In May, Aceves delivered the results of a team enforcement effort with the sheriff’s department that targeted prolific offenders. The enforcement theory was that if you look for clusters of burglaries on a map, you’ll find a prolific offender. The law enforcement team found that the prolific offender was usually visiting a friend in the neighborhood where the binge of petty crime occurred. They also found that prolific offenders were often connected to each other in what Aceves described as “the Kevin Bacon effect.”
The effort resulted in a 40 to 50 percent decrease in residential and auto burglaries, he said.
The strategy was enhanced by what parole and probation cops call a “fourth waiver,” where convicted thieves agree to waive their Fourth Amendment right to refuse a search. Using the fourth waiver, officers were often able to find evidence such as stolen property and burglary tools on suspects who had been convicted of felonies.
But if the suspect isn’t on probation or parole, cops cannot use the fourth waiver, and as a result of Prop. 47, far fewer low-level offenders will be on probation or parole for their crimes.
With the changes to the law under Prop. 47, there is little stick and lots of carrot for petty criminals, even when they are caught red-handed, Aceves said.
“It’s frustrating because we’ve done such a good job with reducing our crime rate,” Aceves says.
Deputy District Attorney David Greenberg agrees with Aceves’ assessment that property crimes will probably go up. It also means that many suspects will be given citations and released when they’re caught, he says.
“Before Prop. 47, a guy with a robbery conviction who went into Walmart and got caught stealing $200 worth of stuff would be arrested and charged with a felony,” Greenberg says. “Now, law enforcement arrives, they see he has stolen nothing that makes it a felony, so they issue a citation to appear in court in 45 to 60 days. Who knows if the guy will show up, and the maximum penalty now is 180 days instead of 32 months.”
The District Attorney’s office often would use the threat of a longer sentence as leverage to push the suspect into drug treatment and supervise him for more than a year.
“Now the suspect can say 180 days equals 90 days of real incarceration; that’s a lot easier than going into treatment,” Greenberg says. “Treatment is tough. Ninety days [in jail] — that’s easy.”
The other problem, both Aceves and Greenberg say, is there’s no plan for drug treatment or community support for the people being released now — and no program funding for at least 20 months.
For people who were caught before Prop. 47 and are in treatment now, the District Attorney is making it possible for them to stay in treatment programs even though the reduction of charges means they can leave — or pay to stay in treatment, Greenberg said.
Aceves says treatment is important, but it often takes leverage to convince minor offenders to accept treatment.
“A lot of property crime has a drug component. Some of the charges are usually dropped with a plea bargain, but the sentence reflects that the person has a drug problem,” he says. “Now that there’s no real hammer for drug possession, that person is going to think, ‘Why not go ahead and steal more stuff?’”
Aceves agrees that prison for people who commit petty crime to support a drug habit is not much of a solution. But he wants to see the programs promised by Prop. 47 in place so the people being released from jails and prisons have some supervision and support when they land back in the communities where they’ve done wrong before.
The text of Prop. 47 stipulates that the money saved by keeping offenders out of prison will be divvied up so that 60 percent goes for mental health and drug treatment, 25 percent for education and 10 percent for victims’ services.
“The proposition says that the savings in prison costs for the first year will be calculated in July 2016 and put towards programs,” he says. “That means there’s no money available for at least 20 months, and we don’t know how much money will become available then.”
In San Diego County jails, more than 1,800 inmates have filed petitions for resentencing, according to the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. So far, there have been just eight inmates released.
Two were in jail for meth possession; one for meth and heroin; one for heroin; one for theft and meth possession; one for burglary; one for theft; and one for theft, burglary and possessing stolen property, a department spokesperson said.
But Greenberg says the number of inmates with similar charges and convictions will grow.
“Right now, it’s people with court dates for preliminary hearings, trials and sentencing that are being released,” Greenberg says. “We’ve got more than 1,800 files to review and we’re meeting every day with the Public Defender to review them. There will be many more, and there will certainly be an impact in our community.”
—Marty Graham is a freelance writer covering the San Diego region.