Creative Ideas Will Unlock Prop 47's Potential to Change Lives

As most people in government will tell you, passing the law is the easy part. The hard part is the implementation. Prop 47 is no exception, and Los Angeles County needs creative ideas to unlock the law's intended benefits.

Last year, California voters approved Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which reduced certain non-violent, non-serious crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The purpose of the bill was to stop wasting prison space on low-level offenders, and also to remove obstacles preventing people who had already served their time from rejoining productive society (the law also applied retroactively).

That the first objective has been achieved is clear: the subsequent decrease in the state prison population allowed California to satisfy court-imposed mandates a year ahead of schedule. But the second objective -- removing barriers to jobs and services -- has not enjoyed such success.

At least 690,000 Los Angeles County residents are eligible for re-sentencing under Prop 47, according to the office of the County's Public Defender and Alternate Public Defender. Yet fewer than 50,000 have applied to date. And the clock counts down: the law set a 2017 deadline for all re-sentencing petitions.

If this deadline passes without a significant acceleration in applications, Los Angeles County will have missed a significant opportunity to set people on the road to productive citizenship and thereby protect public safety.

Convicted felons face restricted access to jobs, housing, and government programs. Though the motivations for these limitations are understandable, they are also counterproductive. Research shows that the best way to prevent the formerly incarcerated from committing future crimes is to ensure successful reintegration into productive society. These restrictions, in contrast, keep these men and women unemployed, untreated and homeless -- precisely the risk factors most associated with recidivism.

Why haven't more eligible people applied for re-sentencing? First, very few people even know about this opportunity. A recent survey commissioned by The California Endowment revealed that only 29 percent of County residents were even aware of Prop 47. Moreover, the application process is not easy. Eligible people may not be able to afford a lawyer or navigate the legal system without one.

Local governments need to step in to fill these gaps. In collaboration with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, I have introduced a motion that would mobilize County agencies to proactively identify eligible people and link them to legal help. County staff, who interface with thousands of residents per day, can be trained to identify and refer eligible candidates. The Public Defender and Alternate Public Defender can then help these candidates apply for re-sentencing.

But that is not all we can do. Excitingly, the process of identifying eligible candidates presents an opportunity that is core to the County's mission. The pool of people eligible for Prop 47 is likely to be the same pool of people most in need of County services. As we identify eligible applicants, we should simultaneously assess their other needs and connect them to resources.

The most important thing we can connect them to is employment. It is said that nothing stops a bullet like a job. While we are coming to realize that intensive healing of trauma is even more important than employment, there is no doubt that a job provides dignity, purpose, and income -- all of which prevent crime.

But we need help from our private sector partners. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and I have invited the leaders of prominent civic institutions to participate in a task force charged with developing a series of major public-private partnerships to connect Prop 47 eligible men and women with jobs and services.

Our invite list was carefully crafted, comprising leading institutions that we hope will themselves convene and mobilize their respective sectors: the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce (business), the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (unions), Los Angeles Trade-Tech College (educational institutions), The California Endowment (philanthropy), the Archdiocese (faith-based organizations), and Californians for Safety and Justice (nonprofit organizations).

A major transformation is underway within Los Angeles County's criminal justice system. But justice is not just about jails; it is also about jobs, treatment, and community. Our County confronts a complex challenge with very high stakes, and it will require unprecedented collaboration among public and private stakeholders to create a fairer world.