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Panelists Discuss the Local Impacts of Proposition 47 on Law Enforcement, Courts

Sheriff Bill Brown says the law, which changes the penalties for drug possession and many forms of theft, sets a dangerous precedent

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, Chief Deputy District Attorney Kelly Scott and other experts spoke Thursday as part of a Proposition 47 panel discussion hosted by the Santa Barbara Chapter of the University of California Hastings Alumni Association.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, Chief Deputy District Attorney Kelly Scott and other experts spoke Thursday as part of a Proposition 47 panel discussion hosted by the Santa Barbara Chapter of the University of California Hastings Alumni Association. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

A local panel of law enforcement, attorneys and judges on Thursday discussed a law passed last year that reduces certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and spoke about how the law is impacting each of them in their various lines of work.

Proposition 47 was passed by almost 60 percent of California's voters last November and changed the penalties for drug possession and many forms of theft from felonies to misdemeanors.

People found to be in possession of heroin, cocaine, concentrated cannabis and methamphetamine are now charged with misdemeanors as opposed to felonies.

People arrested for such crimes before the law went into place can apply for reduction and resentencing. The law also states that savings from the program must be put into prevention and treatment programs.

The panel was hosted by the Santa Barbara Chapter of the University of California Hastings Alumni Association, which did not take a stance on the proposition. The event took place at the Louise Lowry Davis Community Center and was well-attended, with chairs added in the back of the room after the event started.

The panel included Santa Barbara Superior Court Judges Clifford Anderson, Jean Dandona and Gustavo Lavayen, Sheriff Bill Brown, Public Defender Rai Montes De Oca, Deputy Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman and Chief Deputy District Attorney Kelly Scott.

Each talked about how they've seen the impacts play out.

Heitman said that probation has seen a reduction in workload and that since the law was passed last fall, more than 230 cases since then have required no further supervision upon release.

"We've completely closed those cases," she said.

Because probation works primarily with felons, there are fewer cases to deal with and the department is working to redistribute resources "to make sure we're as effective as possible," she said.

How to best get people who might need treatment into such a program without the threat of jail is a continuing conversation the department is having, she said.

In November 2014, 78 people were in the county's Substance Abuse Treatment Court, but that number has dropped to closer to 50 now that the law has passed.

Scott said the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office has seen 1,500 petitions filed requesting resentencing.

They've also seen a 39 percent decrease in felony cases, and "we don't know if that's going to be the new normal," she said, adding that she fears there is no longer an incentive to go into an intensive drug treatment without the threat of jail.

A surge in other crimes could also result, and other communities, including Los Angeles, have seen an increase in crimes, she said.

Sheriff Bill Brown said that for the 40 percent of the county where his department provides services, it's been a mixed bag and it's too early to tell what the impacts will be.

As of June, part one crimes — the most serious — are about the same and down only about 2 percent, he said.

He said that a 67 percent increase in motor vehicle thefts has been recorded and that overall drug-related cases are up 12 percent, with the most significant increase in north county.

The average daily population of the county jail initially saw a decline from the 883 inmates who were in the jail at the time of the law's passage and hit a low of 797 inmates, but the number was back up to 888 inmates as of Monday.

When asked if those numbers affect the need for a new jail, Brown responded that overcrowding is just one reason that the jail needs to be updated. Aging and unsafe infrastructure is another, in addition to the fact that the jail serves as a hybrid between the jail and a prison because of people remanded back to county custody under AB109.

Brown said he feels the Prop. 37 law sets a dangerous precedent, and that "heroin is still as dangerous today possessing it as a misdemeanor as possessing it as a felony."

Brown told a story about a young woman recovering from drug addiction who relapsed, and was discovered in a bathroom stall with a heroin needle in her arm and a citation in her pocket from an officer who had merely cited her an hour earlier for possession, when before she would have been taken to jail.

"That's what worries me about this law," he said. "For a lot of people, hitting rock bottom is when they go to jail. … Ultimately it's the people that are struggling that will pay the heaviest price."

Public Defender de Oca took a different view, saying that drug-addicted people don't care about the consequences, whether misdemeanor or felony.

"They're going to keep being an addict until they're good and ready not to be an addict," he said, adding that it's up to defense counsel to show them the benefits of drug treatment. "It's an opportunity to do something a little bit better."

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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