This week the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve employment contracts for two deputy public defenders to support the county’s efforts to fully implement Proposition 47.
In her recommendation to the board, County Public Defender Phyllis Morris explained, “Existing staff is unable to absorb the workload increase associated with Proposition 47 and requires additional support from experienced legal professionals.”
Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, gives individuals an opportunity to have certain felony convictions (most related to drug possession) reduced to misdemeanors. Those who have already served their time can apply to have their conviction(s) reduced to a misdemeanor and those currently incarcerated can petition to have their charges reduced and as a result—their sentences as well.
There is no question felony convictions limit a person’s ability to be fully involved in their community. It can sorely affect their employment opportunities and in some instances restrict their ability to exercise the full breadth of their citizenship relative to issues like voting and jury duty.
The county included funding in its 2015-16 discretionary budget for three deputy public defenders to assist in the Proposition 47 process. One deputy public defender was hired in September. The county is behind other nearby municipalities like Riverside, Orange and San Diego counties in its processing of Proposition 47 petitions.
At the time of the bill’s implementation it was estimated San Bernardino County alone was facing a significant number of potential petitioners including about 400 state prisoners and 2,000 county jail inmates. In addition, there was an expectation of potential petitions from approximately 8,300 felony probations and at least 20,000 individuals who already completed sentences that are also eligible to apply for reduced charges and sentences.
Another important component of Proposition 47 is the redeployment of savings from reduced incarceration. The savings will be allocated to local communities and be used to expand mental health and substance abuse programs for offenders.
According to reports published when the initiative became law in November 2014, the State of California spends approximately $62,000 per inmate each year. When that number is leveraged against the number of felony convictions and sentences impacted by this legislation it is conducive to a significant shifting in funds from the criminal justice system to the community.
Going forward, advocates of the legislation believe it will be important to monitor and assure appropriate dollars are being reallocated and shifted away from jails, prisons, etc. and into local communities. From there it will be important to assure dollars are spent in alignment with efforts identified in the legislation.
The law requires individuals file their petitions in the county where they were sentenced. Currently, there are thousands of San Bernardino County residents in need of legal assistance.
The new deputy public defenders will be responsible for preparing and defending cases; conducting legal research and preparing legal documents, briefs and opinions; reviewing client files, recognizing relevant issues and establishing effective working relationships with various members of the criminal justice community.
For additional information on how to petition for resentencing in San Bernardino County visit http://www.sb-court.org/Divisions/Criminal.aspx; for Riverside County visit http://www.riverside.courts.ca.gov/localfrms/ri-cr039.pdf.