Prop. 47 giving men, women second chance
Prop. 47 is changing records and changing lives. In November 2014, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 47, reclassifying six nonviolent, low-level felonies to misdemeanors. I strongly supported Proposition 47, investing $1.3 million into its passage. I’ve also sponsored two justice fairs, in Culver City and Stockton. Both events were attended by thousands of individuals eager to complete their Prop. 47 petitions for record change.
As a Christian and a conservative, I used to believe that anyone convicted of a crime deserved whatever punishment they received — the longer the better. This “un-biblical” view, fortunately, was radically altered after meeting with an ex-felon by the name of Chuck Colson — a former Nixon administrator who did time for Watergate crimes. Colson invited me on a “tour” of the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Angola houses over 6,000 convicts. But what impressed me the most about the prison was its warden, a man dedicated to reforming inmates, and transforming their lives. If you have a heart for ministry, prison is where people are being compressed — either into diamonds or dust.
I supported Prop. 47 because it was time to end harsh, expensive and counter-productive punishments, and to redirect our resources into prevention strategies in order to end the 54 percent recidivism rate.
Exactly who are the faces of Prop. 47? When you walk around a justice fair, or attend a Prop. 47 legal clinic, you’ll be surprised at what you observe. Primarily, the participants are ordinary-looking men and women. A lot of them could be your neighbors. Some are grandparents. Most are fathers and mothers.
When you talk to these people, you’ll realize that many are victims of sexual, physical or psychological abuse — or all three. A lot come from divorced families or neighborhoods surrounded by gangs. Unfortunately, for many of them, their parents were either addicted to drugs or alcohol or both. Some, despairing in their circumstances, attempted suicide. Most come from poor families, where life was tough, and opportunities were few and far between.
What were their crimes? For a majority of them, it was some form of petty theft — items worth less than $950. For others it was drug possession, writing bad checks, receiving stolen property, or some type of non-serious, nonviolent crime.
These men and women have obviously made mistakes, but, a person should never be defined by what they did five or 50 years ago. Their felonies are like a scarlet letter “F,” a ball and chain that follows them throughout their life, eroding their families and costing our communities dearly. Prop. 47 hits the reset button, putting a fresh wind into their sails.
What’s the effect of Prop. 47? Listen to the voices of those who have benefited. Rochelle Solombrino: “You feel totally defeated because of your felony conviction. It’s a debt to society that never ends. Getting suitable housing or a decent job is almost impossible. Prop. 47 changed all that.”
Joseph Barela: “It’s difficult to find work once you’re released from prison. Background checks always catch up. Once my felony was reduced to a misdemeanor I was able to find a good-paying job.”
Toni Hunter: “Prison is a cesspool — it doesn’t do anything but teach you different tools on how to be a better criminal. Fortunately, Prop. 47 allowed me to start a new life. The sky’s the limit; doors are now opened that had previously been slammed in my face.”
Donyell Green: “I couldn’t get a job with a large corporation and provide for my family because of my felony conviction. After reclassifying my 10-year-old felony into a misdemeanor the company agreed to hire me. What the voters did in passing Prop. 47 was a blessing — that felony ‘cloud’ was no longer hanging over my head.”
Prop. 47 is also historic: never in the history of the United States have so many people — upwards of one million — had an opportunity to change their criminal records. In California alone, there are more than 4,800 state laws that place barriers on people convicted of a felony. It used to be, you do the crime, you do the time. But it’s no longer like that — a felony lasts a lifetime. Prop. 47 is a four-letter word: Hope. Suddenly, doors that had once been closed are now opened, creating new opportunities.
Prop. 47 requires everyone’s support. If you’re financially able, host or sponsor a justice fair or a legal clinic. Or, volunteer at one of these events — especially if you’re an attorney or a paralegal since many of the attendees require assistance in completing their Prop. 47 petitions (see www.MyProp47.org/events). As an individual, educate yourself on the barriers faced by ex-felons. Understanding breeds compassion. If you’re an employer, hire ex-offenders. If you have housing, rent to ex-felons. And educational institutions, open your doors — a degree will end the cycle of poverty.
“Change your record — change your life” not only applies to felons, but to anyone who visits a Justice Fair, or a Prop. 47 legal clinic. What you’ll experience will profoundly alter your perspective, not only as to those who are attending, but as to the future of our entire criminal justice system, and hopefully, that will be your Angola awakening.
B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., a California businessman and philanthropist, is founder and chairman of the board of Serving California, a foundation that helps ex-offenders, crime victims and veterans.