Proposition 57: A Step Forward in Criminal Justice Reform

By Helen Guo (PO ’20)

On the upcoming November 2016 general election ballot, Proposition 57 will give California voters the opportunity to approve a new model for criminal justice reform. California’s modern reform process began when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown V. Plata (2011) that the state of overcrowding in state prisons at the time constituted cruel and unusual punishment due to the lack of adequate medical and mental health care available, violating the Eighth Amendment. In response, Governor Jerry Brown took drastic measures to bring state prison populations down to the mandated level of 137.5% of design capacity.[1] The California legislature first passed the Public Safety Realignment Initiative in 2011, which shifted state prison populations to county jails in hopes of fulfilling the mandate requirement.[2] The legislature then passed Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced most non-serious, nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors and, as a result, reduced incarceration rates.[3]

Now, by placing Proposition 57 on the ballot this November, the state government is trying to reform the criminal justice system further. The hope is that the proposition would prevent drastic increases in state prison populations and keep the number under the court-mandated level by loosening parole consideration requirements, encouraging inmates to seek rehabilitative services, and disallowing prosecutors to decide whether a juvenile should be tried in the adult court system. Granted, the initial costs of implementing these changes and the increase in urban crime rates following the passage of Prop 57’s predecessor, Proposition 47, may deter voters from checking yes. However, if passed, Proposition 57 would continue paving the path for positive criminal justice reform, creating a more just and cost-efficient system while enhancing public safety

Forming a More Just System

The first objective of Proposition 57 is to draw equitable standards of early release on parole in response to the current state of overcrowding in California prisons. Jail capacity restraints led to early releases without set legal standards after the Public Safety Realignment Initiative was passed in 2011. The initiative shifted huge numbers of prisoners from state to local centers, which caused overcrowding in county jails. County jail populations rose 15% on average from September 2011 to September 2014, forcing counties to release 8,292 pre-sentenced inmates and 5,914 sentenced inmates, increases of 18 percent and 39 percent, respectively. [4] In effect, the realignment shifted the burden, but the root of the problem remained, resulting in the early release of prisoners. The lack of set legal standards for early release on parole constitutes a major flaw in the criminal justice system. Overcrowding created a need to delineate just standards for release, starting at the state prison level so that county jails could be spared the burden in the first place.

To address the need for standards of release on parole, Prop 57 would allow “any person convicted of a non-violent felony offense and sentenced to time in state prison [to] be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense,” primary offense being “the longest term of imprisonment imposed by the court for any offense, excluding the imposition of enhancement, consecutive sentence, or alternative sentence.”[5] For example, a person sentenced to 6 months for one offense and 12 for another, including enhancements, would serve only 12 months, unless the judge explicitly implements a consecutive sentence, whereby the person would serve 18 months. Alternative sentences would release the defendant back into the community under restrictions such as home detention. By limiting the time required for a prisoner to serve before parole to the full term of one offense in most cases, state prisons would be able to release prisoners on parole quicker. Of course, one can argue that those with multiple sentences may reoffend upon an earlier release. However, the possibility of parole is only available to those who have not committed violent felony offenses. These are people who pose relatively little threat to the public upon release.

Prop 57 also serves to negate direct filing of juveniles, which will make the criminal justice system safer and more productive for juveniles. The proposition would allow only judges to transfer juveniles to adult court,[6] while direct filing currently allows the prosecutor to try a juvenile age 14 or older in adult court without a hearing with a judge. Judges currently have the power to waive juveniles into adult court as well, but there is reason to believe prosecutors may implement direct file more often than a judge would, rendering direct file a harmful practice. The Young Adult Court of the Superior Court of California notes that “the prefrontal cortex of the brain — responsible for our cognitive processing and impulse control — does not fully develop until the early to mid-20s.  [As] young adults are going through [a] critical developmental phase, many find themselves facing adulthood without supportive family, housing, education, [and] employment…Our traditional justice system is not designed to address cases involving these individuals.”[7] Direct file is an injustice to juveniles in the court system. By limiting transfers of juveniles to adult court, Proposition 57 fixes yet another flaw in the criminal justice system.

Critics of Prop 57 may believe that youth who are directly filed by prosecutors have usually committed more serious crimes and therefore should be tried in adult court. Yet, in 2014, according to statistics from the California Department of Justice, there was a 55% drop in serious juvenile arrests but a 23% increase in direct filings from 2003.[8] While juvenile crimes are becoming less serious, direct filings are increasing. These statistics reveal a negative correlation between direct filing and severity of crime.

Though the system of direct filing poses a threat to a fair criminal justice system for all youth, juvenile minorities are affected most by the practice. In 2014 and 2015, minorities accounted for about 90% of directly filed youth in California, but only 70% of overall youth in California (between ages 14-17).[9] Not only does direct filing fail to distinguish between youth who commit severe crimes and those who do not, it also encourages prejudice against youth of color. Prop 57 would attempt to mitigate this defect in the criminal justice system, assuming that judges, appointed by the state governor or legislature, will prove less biased than prosecutors in targeting minorities.

Rehabilitation Versus Retribution: Promoting Public Safety and Cost-Avoidance

Along with reforming parole standards and youth transfers, Proposition 57 emphasizes rehabilitation over retribution. The proposition gives the Department of Corrections “the authority to award credits earned for good behavior and approved rehabilitative or educational achievements.”[10] This would quicken parole eligibility for rehabilitated prisoners and reduce recidivism rates by incentivizing rehabilitation in the first place.

Within the Superior Court of California, the County of San Francisco’s Drug Court provides rehabilitative treatment to drug offenders and provides resources to further offenders’ educational and vocational abilities. Over a 5-year period, new drug-related active felony cases decreased by 69% in comparison to a 44% decrease in the monthly average of all felonies.[11] There is little doubt that treatment reduces recidivism. And while this court provides treatment to drug offenders already on probation rather than those in prison, the results of rehabilitative treatment are promising for in-prison treatment as well. Incentivizing successful treatment by making early probation contingent on it seems a promising approach, and this is exactly what Prop 57 will accomplish.

Critics may wonder if quicker parole eligibility would raise urban crime rates, endangering the public. This critique, however, seem less concerning in light of data collected by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which showed that after Proposition 47 was passed in 2014, reducing non-violent, non-serious crimes to misdemeanors, cities in California with the largest reductions in jail populations did not show higher increases in crime than those with fewer reductions.[12] This suggests that the recent surge in urban crime rates should not be attributed to the early release of non-violent, non-serious offenders.

All this being said, California voters are likely to vote based partially on whether the proposition is a beneficial economic choice, especially considering the current state debt of $443 billion. In order to implement Proposition 57, more rehabilitation and corrections staff, as well as parole officers, would have to be hired. In addition, counties would have to pay for expanded youth housing in state juvenile facilities. Making sure that the proposition is implemented in a manner that promotes public safety would certainly be costly.

Over time, however, the economic benefits of lowering prison and jail populations outweigh the costs of implementing Proposition 57. The Legislative Analyst’s Office of California estimates that Proposition 57 will generate tens of millions of dollars in net savings per year for California due to reductions in the prison populations, facility construction and maintenance costs, and staffing costs. Prop 57 will increase total annual net costs for counties by only a few million dollars.[13] Proposition 47, which paved the way for Prop 57, generated about $62.7 million in savings, while resulting in only about $33.4 million in costs.[14]

Review and Implications

Overall, Proposition 57 looks to be a promising new model for reform. The new parole standards it proffers suit the current system’s need to keep prison populations beneath the quota set by Brown V. Plata in 2011. Eliminating direct filing would begin to mend the judicial injustices all too often experienced by juveniles, especially minority youth. Moreover, the credit system for rehabilitation success and subsequent early parole enhances public safety and lowers prison populations by reducing recidivism. And although the implementation of Prop 57 has costs, it is estimated to generate net savings of tens of millions of dollars every year by cost-avoidance.

Altogether, the proposition is a smart choice both politically and economically for the California state government. As it is not historically unheard of for other state governments, or even the federal government, to model their legislation after that of the Golden State, Proposition 57, if it is passed, may well spearhead criminal justice reform in the United States. For the time being, however, the choice lies in the hands of California voters.


[1] Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. ___ (2011)

[2] Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin, Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far, Public Policy Institute of California (2015), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[3] Mike Males, Is Proposition 47 to Blame for California’s 2015 Increase in Urban Crime?, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (2016), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[4] Lofstrom and Martin 2015

[5] Proposition 57, Legislative Analyst’s Office of the California Legislature’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor (2016), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[6] id

[7] Judge Bruce Chan, Young Adult Court, The Superior Court of California – County of San Francisco (2016), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[8] Laura Ridolfi, Maureen Washburn, and Frankie Guzman, The Prosecution of Youth As Adults, Youth Law (2016), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[9] id

[10] Proposition 57, Legislative Analyst’s Office of the California Legislature’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor (2016), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[11] Jennifer Pasinosky, Annual Report 2012, Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco, Collaborative Courts Division (2013), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[12] Males 2016

[13] Proposition 57, Legislative Analyst’s Office of the California Legislature’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor (2016), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

[14] Mac Taylor, The 2016-17 Budget: Fiscal Impacts of Proposition 47, Legislative Analyst’s Office (2016), online at (visited November 2, 2016).

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