LA County approves $6.6M to help 500,000 reduce felonies to misdemeanors

Susan Abram
Los Angeles Daily News
July 19, 2016

Almost $7 million in funding was approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday for a year-long campaign to reach 500,000 people who are eligible to have felonies on their records reduced to misdemeanors under Proposition 47.

The money will come out of the county’s annual budget and will help pay for mailers, town hall meetings, and information on the county’s 2-1-1 information line, county officials told supervisors. The goal is to reach 500,000 people involved in some 819,000 cases across Los Angeles County who may be eligible for outreach, services and help in seeking employment, county officials said. Some outreach has already started and will continue until October 2017.

“Although Prop. 47 was passed by voters in November 2014, the level of awareness in the community and among eligible clients is unknown,” according to a report prepared by Los Angeles County’s Chief Executive Office. “A large proportion of cases are old and eligible clients have since moved on living with a felony record.”

Known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act and passed by voters in 2014, Prop. 47 allows some low-level, nonviolent felonies such as simple drug possession, petty theft under $950 and forging or writing a bad check under $950, changed to misdemeanors on old criminal records.

More than 70 percent of those who are eligible live in areas overseen by supervisors Hilda Solis, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe, whose districts together stretch from Downtown L.A. to Carson, Rowland Heights to Torrance.

The number of those who are eligible was culled from various databases, including from those provided by the county’s probation and public defender’s offices. But there are some shortfalls in the information, Ridley-Thomas noted. He said he was concerned the data didn’t go far enough in identifying people who are homeless.

“What is our data telling us?” Ridley-Thomas asked. “Reliability of the data is critically important. It seems to me if you want good policy, you have to have good data.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl added the data could help provide a way to link the Prop. 47 population to the right services. She said she’s heard from law enforcement officials who say those who are released under Prop. 47 tend to re-offend, because they are not enrolled into drug treatment programs, for example.

Although some studies have found there is no correlation to the rise in violent crimes to Prop. 47, some law enforcement officials say they’ve seen an increase in everything from home invasion robberies to theft of catalytic converters. They say criminals are getting savvier about what sort of crimes will get sentences.

But while the supervisors approved the funding in a 4 to 1 vote to support the campaign, Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas were concerned about a county report that stated that once those eligible came forward, the services provided may be launched through the Sheriff’s Department. They asked county staff to re-examine that goal and present more details in 60 days.

Several people who spoke during the public comment period said nonprofits that work with low-level offenders should be provided with funding to lead the programs.

“We have solutions,” said Susan Burton, founder and executive director for A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which helps formerly incarcerated women with housing and services. “When Prop. 47 came to town, it took the wind out of law enforcement. When I see this board lay upon law enforcement to enforce it, it’s going in the wrong direction.”

Joe Cerda, who admitted he was once addicted to heroin, said programs such as those run by Homeboy Industries, where he is a trainee, should receive Prop. 47 funding to expand their role in the community.

“They are part of the rehabilitation process and prevent recidivism,” he said.

Solis called the county’s efforts in identifying those who are eligible under Prop. 47 a significant step and praised the progress so far.

“The fact that we’re making a dent is good, but we need to do more,” she said. “It’s a new day in the county to see how quickly we’ve been able to put a plan together. Now we have to fill it in and make it robust.”