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California Reduces Penalties for Drug Use and Other Nonviolent Crimes

The state that once pioneered get-tough approaches on crime with its “three strikes” law is now headed in the opposite direction.

California voters cleared the way for roughly 40,000 nonviolent offenders a year to receive more lenient punishments, with the passage of a ballot measure that raises the threshold for felonies.

Despite opposition from several large law enforcement groups, the measure passed easily by a 58-42 margin with 98 percent of precincts reporting.

It's the latest step in California loosening criminal penalties. Two years ago, voters rolled back key parts of the state’s well-known “three strikes” law that mandated life imprisonment for three-time felons. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce chronic overcrowding in its prison system, leading to changes that have sent more inmates to county jails rather than state prisons.

The victory in California Tuesday was one of several nationwide for groups hoping to lower criminal penalties for drug use. Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana. California’s Proposition 47 lowers penalties for possession of illegal drugs for personal use. 

But it also raises the threshold for which crimes are considered felonies. Crimes such as grand theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks or forging checks will now, in most cases, be considered misdemeanors as long as the amount involved is $950 or less. That means those crimes will now generally carry shorter sentences, and people convicted of those charges will serve time in county jails rather than state prisons.

Law enforcement groups, including state associations of police chiefs and sheriffs, opposed the measure because they said it would lower penalties for owning date rape drugs, stealing firearms and committing identity theft. They also pointed out that the proposition would not ratchet up penalties for criminals who habitually break the same laws.

The measure does more than just lower penalty thresholds: It will try to recapture money the state saves in prison costs and use that money for other services: 65 percent for mental health and drug abuse treatment, 25 percent for anti-truancy efforts and 10 percent for victim services.

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