California voters on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative that will reduce penalties for low-level drug and property crimes to save hundreds of millions of dollars in prison costs.
Under Proposition 47, shoplifting, forgery, fraud, petty theft, and possession of small amounts of drugs including cocaine and heroin are among the offenses that will be treated as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
With about 2.6 million ballots counted, the measure had 58 percent support.
Passage in the nation's most populous state "sends a powerful message nationally, demonstrating that voters are not just ready but eager to reduce prison populations in ways that can enhance public safety,'' Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the national Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.
Major law enforcement groups opposed the measure, saying reductions go too far because the crimes include possession of date rape drugs and stealing firearms. They said reducing penalties is dangerous at a time when the state still is adjusting to another change, prison realignment, that often results in shorter sentences and early releases to cope with crowding.
Jennifer Jacobs, spokeswoman for the No on 47 campaign, said opponents were outspent 17-to-1 mainly by national groups supporting lower criminal penalties for drug use. Major backers included Public Storage founder B. Wayne Hughes, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger and a fund linked to New York billionaire George Soros.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office projects that reducing sentences through Proposition 47 could affect about 40,000 offenders a year. An estimated 4,000 currently go to state prison, while the rest serve their time at the county level.
The initiative also would allow an estimated 10,000 offenders to petition judges for reduced sentences because they already are serving felony sentences for covered offenses.
Since misdemeanors carry a maximum penalty of less than a year in custody, the measure is projected to save hundreds of millions of dollars. The savings will be diverted to school programs, victims' services, and mental health and drug treatment.
Advocates, led by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, said diverting incarceration money to treatment programs will help break a long cycle of crime. They said felony convictions make it more difficult to get jobs and housing assistance, increasing the pressure on offenders to commit more crimes.
"We must devote our resources to keeping violent criminals off the streets, not cycling addicts in and out of jail,'' Gascon said in a statement after the measure passed.
The reduced sentences will apply to some property crimes only if the amount of money involved is $950 or less. Felony convictions can still be imposed on defendants convicted of those offenses if they are registered sex offenders or have a previous conviction for crimes such as rape, murder or child molestation.