California’s Proposition 47 – The LA Times Cost Savings Myth

[By Marc Debbaudt]

Savings, what savings? That was the first thought that came to mind upon reading the recent Los Angeles Times editorial musing about the “savings” that supposedly will follow on the heels of Prop 47 and how these “savings” should be spent. The Times editorial perfectly captured the naiveté of the Editorial writers, and their complete lack of understanding of criminals and the criminal justice system. There are no “savings.” Instead, all Prop 47 did was shift the costs and pass the buck.

First, the editorial claims that savings followed Prop 47’s reduction of felonies to misdemeanors attributes savings to fewer felony cases handled by the District Attorney’s office. To understand their contention you need to know that the LA City Attorney’s Office and nine other City Attorney Officers in this County handle misdemeanor cases in their respective cities, and the LA District Attorney’s Office handles misdemeanor prosecutions for the rest of Los Angeles County. In fact, Deputy District Attorneys are being reassigned to handle the increase in the misdemeanor caseload throughout the County as a result of Prop 47. Thus, contrary to the apparent belief of the LA Times, the crimes committed by those before Prop 47 are not only continuing to be committed but in increasing numbers. The big difference is that now they are charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Second, the costs to prosecute these crimes haven’t disappeared. To the extent they are being prosecuted by City Attorneys, the costs have just been shifted from the County District Attorney to local agencies. That is not a savings, instead that is a shift of costs from the County to the City. The costs are the costs of Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, court reporters, jurors, bailiffs, transportation from jails to courts, etcetera. The costs don’t change in terms of courtroom time by virtue of a crime being designated as a misdemeanor or a felony.

The claim of “savings” as a result of fewer criminals going to jail likewise reflects a misunderstanding of the role of jail in the criminal justice system. Jails have primarily been a place for pre-trial detention of those facing felony charges, not the service of a sentence. Typically a sentenced felon goes to state prison, not jail; and a sentenced misdemeanant goes to jail, not prison. Under the other stellar piece of social engineering-realignment – has changed with many felons no longer serving their sentence in state prison, but in a county jail. And with Prop 47’s reducing felonies to misdemeanors, that has increased the burden on the jail system. Previously, those held pre-trial with bail set, instead of being released on their own recognizance, were held because they posed a danger to public safety and/or were not likely not to return to court unless they posted bail. With Prop 47, those same criminals who would have been held pending trial for a felony are now simply not booked into custody, or if booked, released before arraignment because the charge has been transformed into a misdemeanor.

The reasons those facing misdemeanors are not held in custody are multifold. First, if a person is in custody when arraigned on a misdemeanor, they must be brought to trial within 30 days of arraignment. Trials are rarely set on the last possible day they can commence, but instead about ten days before the day trial will commence to make sure everything is lining up and the defense is ready-in short, an impractical 20 days between arraignment and trial. In addition, holding a person pre-trial on a misdemeanor uses up most, if not all, of the custody time that would be imposed upon conviction. Of course, this starkly contrasts with the 85 day period from the time of initial arraignment of the complaint to the last day for trial for those accused of felonies.

Once again, the actual costs of not holding in custody the now Prop 47 misdemeanor defendants is spread elsewhere-to the community, where individuals and businesses bear the real cost because criminals are returned to the street to commit property crimes against them. Judging by the increasing property crime rate, it is obvious this is exactly what is happening despite some who claim it is too early to know why. Those criminals that would have remained in custody facing a felony trial are now rampaging through our communities, committing their misdemeanor crimes with near impunity.

As I detailed in my Los Angeles Time op-ed, Prop 47 was deliberately and misleadingly titled the “Safe Streets and Schools Act”. It had nothing to do with making our schools “safer” and it darn sure hasn’t made our streets safer. Apparently the Times believes we have imported a new group of criminals from some vortex to commit the crimes that were formerly felonies before Prop 47. However, reality suggests the same criminals are committing the same crimes but in increasing numbers-thus Prop 47 merely shifted the costs associated with housing a defendant in a penal institution to the costs incurred by real victims, businesses, and other prosecuting agencies of these exact same crimes. The hope that in the world of misdemeanor sentences these criminals will be held even marginally accountable for their crimes is fading.

One has to wonder how high the costs to crime victims must climb for state voters to regain their senses and fix the mess they created when they imposed this reckless sweeping social change to our criminal justice system.

Marc Debbaudt is President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. He can be contacted at mdebbaudt@laadda.com. The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA, which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles deputy district attorneys.