Our Current Justice System Is Tearing Apart Families

Family is everything. I've always felt that way, but having a baby this year really drove that truism home.

Being a mother has reinforced and refined my thinking on many issues, including -- believe it or not -- our criminal justice system. That's why I'm supporting Proposition 47, a California voter initiative that will restore balance to how we approach community safety.

Let me explain. I grew up in a family of journalists -- both parents, two uncles and a grandfather. They and my other relatives instilled, since I was a child, a commitment to critical thinking. Don't believe what you hear; explore and analyze what you encounter to determine your own truth.

This family trait has led me to not only think deeply about societal issues but also to act. Having my son has only increased my desire to do so.

And an issue that clearly needs action right now in California is the reforming of our criminal justice and prison systems. Our over-reliance on incarceration for non-violent crimes has destroyed families and burdened taxpayers -- without making us any safer.

California spends more than $10 billion per year on its 34 prisons -- and more than six times as much per prisoner than on each K-12 student. Despite this heavy investment, 61% of prisoners return within three years.

If incarceration was actually changing behavior, that's one thing. But if it's not, then locking up nonviolent people comes at too high a cost to taxpayers and to the families it destroys.

The latest research making this point comes from the Women's Foundation of California, which released a report on October 14 about the higher percentage of women incarcerated for low-level offenses - and the ripple effect on their and their children's lives.

Bias Behind Bars found that, nationwide, women are 63% more likely than men to be incarcerated for drug possession. In California, women are three times more likely to be in prison for forgery or fraud, and twice as likely for petty theft.

Sadly, seven in 10 of these incarcerated women are mothers. (Nationwide, 1.3 million children have mothers who are behind bars.) And children with mothers behind bars are more likely to be put into foster care hopes, drop out of school and end up in the justice system themselves.

The report goes on to say that women leaving prison face steeper obstacles than men in rebuilding their lives, often because a felony conviction can bar them -- usually the primary caregiver for children -- from housing and food assistance, employment opportunities, student loans and more.

This is no way to achieve safety in our communities. And that's why I support Prop. 47.

The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act changes six low-level felonies that can carry prison sentences to misdemeanor punishments. This includes offenses like simple drug possession, writing a bad check and petty shoplifting.

Even better, the law would use the savings from reduced prison costs for K-12 programs, victims' services and mental health and drug treatment. A government agency calculates these savings to be $750 million-$1.25 billion in just five years.

This is why Proposition 47 has the support of law enforcement, crime victims, teachers, health professionals, liberals and conservatives - and moms like me. I also am one of several Artists for 47 endorsing the initiative, ranging from Jay-Z to Brad Pitt to Cameron Diaz and John Legend.

We're united in this effort because our current justice system is tearing apart families for low-level crimes, and draining community resources and tax coffers to pay for it. It hasn't worked, and I urge Californians to join me on November 4 in voting yes on Prop. 47.