Co-authored by Quinn Delaney, founder and President of Akonadi Foundation, which supports racial justice movement building in Oakland.
If we can improve the lives of thousands of California's women and children, shouldn't we do it? If we can strengthen communities throughout the state, shouldn't we do it? And what if, in the process, we can also take a giant step toward fixing our criminal justice system, shouldn't we do it?
Proposition 47, a common sense initiative on the November ballot, gives us a critical opportunity to do all that -- and save the state money.
Increasingly, voters, policy makers and criminal justice experts are speaking out against sky-high incarceration rates and overcrowded prisons and jails. But the devastating impact of our wrongheaded approach to public safety on women often is ignored. Women and girls disproportionately bear the brunt of our broken criminal justice system, a hidden bias that profoundly impacts families and entire communities.
The numbers are clear: Women are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes at disproportionate rates compared to men. For example, in California women are three times more likely to be in prison for forgery or fraud and twice as likely to be incarcerated for petty theft.
Incarcerating women, and men, for low-level offenses and saddling them with the label of "felon" for life has long-lasting consequences. Those with felony convictions face huge barriers to the opportunities they need to get their lives back on track, and that's especially true for women. Formerly incarcerated women are less likely to obtain public benefits and find stable housing as they try to rebuild their lives. Despite the low risk women with criminal records pose to public safety, women also have more difficulty than men finding employment after release from jail or prison.
The damage extends beyond their own lives to that of their children and families. When a person is sent to prison, that sentence has devastating effects on his or her family and community. The children no longer have their mother or father there to fix their meals, get them ready for school or contribute to the family income. Today, this situation affects tens of thousands of children in California, who are growing up without their mother or father. A vast majority of women behind bars -- nearly 62 percent -- are mothers of minor children.
With Proposition 47, California voters can make a dramatic difference in the lives of women and children in the state. We can pass a law that will not break up families and communities needlessly, while still holding people accountable for their actions and keeping us safe.
Here's how Proposition 47 works. If passed, it would change six non-violent, low-level offenses -- such as simple drug possession, petty theft and shoplifting, and writing a bad check -- to misdemeanors, not felonies. It right-sizes the punishment for low-level, non-violent, non-serious crimes, and people convicted of them will serve their time in county jails, not in state prison.
By making simple changes to the way non-violent and non-serious offenses are treated in our criminal justice system, we can eliminate many of the hurdles faced by people trying to pull their lives back together. We can remove the stigma of a felony conviction as these women and men try to overcome drug addiction, mental illness, poverty and other challenges. We can allow mothers and fathers to come home to their families, find a job and get back to the business of raising a family and being a part of a community.
Importantly, this initiative will have a large impact on women. Women are more likely to have been convicted of a crime involving drugs or property, just the offenses covered by this initiative. The effect of the new policy would allow a mother to stay in a county jail closer to home, resulting in less separation from her kids. Families will be reunited sooner, thus avoiding the consequences felt by children of incarcerated parents such as mental and emotional problems, school underperformance, or placement into foster care.
The measure also saves the state money, as high as $1.25 billion in the first five years. Those savings would be allocated to K-12 afterschool programs, mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, victim services, as well as programs that reduce violence against women.
Proposition 47 presents California voters with a common sense approach to holding people responsible for their actions while upholding public safety. It does what good policy should do: strengthen and support communities. If we can stand up for women, families and our state, shouldn't we do it? In November, let's do just that by passing Proposition 47.