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Published:January 19th, 2015 15:35 EST
California and Prop. 47: A Triumph of Interest Groups

California and Prop. 47: A Triumph of Interest Groups

By Vincent Gonzalez

California has always been in a unique position as a trail blazer when it comes to providing its citizens with the greatest access to direct democracy. Nowhere is this more evident than through California`s initiative process. During the midterm elections of 2014, California citizens had the opportunity to directly influence policy as it pertained to the classifications of certain crimes by voting on Proposition 47.

What lies at the core of this initiative is a strategy by which the state would reclassify certain "nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor." (Ballotpedia) In modern California politics, interest groups play a role in helping to shape the agenda by influencing policy, especially through the California initiative process; though their tactics vary, interest groups provide information that both the government and public use when it comes to shaping policy.          


Seems that since times beyond memory, California has always had an inmate problem; what this always inevitably produces is a state prison system that suffers from overcrowding. In an attempt to remedy this, Proposition 47 was placed on the 2014 ballot to help reduce the state`s prison population. The main argument from the sponsors of the initiative is that prisons shouldn`t waste prison space on criminals who are charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes like petty theft and drug possession.

The proposition also seeks to divert the savings from the measure to help fund K-12 schools, mental health and drug treatment programs. The most visible organization that led the campaign for the support of this proposition was Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools, who claim that the initiative will, "Stop government waste and redirects hundreds of millions from prison spending to K-12 and treatment."  (Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools)   

Opponents of the proposition countered that the measure is unnecessary and poses more of a risk to communities as it requires the release of thousands of potentially dangerous inmates as the proposition would authorizes the re-sentencing for those already incarcerated for crimes the proposition would reclassify. Many opponents argued that the reclassification of various felonies to misdemeanors would only put the public in harm as penalties for crimes would weaken. 

The opposition further argued that many of the crimes that would be reclassified under the initiative are not small crimes. For instance, individuals caught stealing a handgun, (which more often than not are stolen with the intention to be used to commit dangerous and violent crimes) will most likely be convicted of a misdemeanor in nearly every case. According to San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman,

". . .  I can tell you that people are not going to steal guns so they can add them to their gun collection. . . They steal them to commit crimes. ... Under Proposition 47, it would redefine grand theft in such a way that theft of a firearm could only be considered a felony if the value of the gun is greater than $950. I can tell you that almost all handguns, which are the majority of the guns that are stolen, retail below $950..." (The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The campaigns for and against the proposition each had various financial donors. The major financial donors in support of the campaign included The Women`s Foundation of California " Yes on 47, Yes on 47, Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools, Yes on 47 Sponsored by PICO California, and California Calls Action Fund " Yes on 47. It`s not surprising to notice that one of the major financial donors in support of the campaign is also (coincidentally enough) one the main sponsor of the proposition, Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools. The relationship between the donor and the change that the proposition is trying to make can`t be any clearer on this particular initiative.

The public figures and organizations that have come out to support the proposition are quite diverse. Some of the most visible supporters of the proposition included California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom (D),  U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (R), the California Democratic Party, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women`s Foundation and even musician Jay Z. Advocates like Newt Gingrich claimed that this same strategy has been used and been successful in red states like Texas. According to Gingrich, Texas, and other politically red states. . . (as he makes sure emphasis and point out in his article), "have shown how reducing prison populations can also reduce cost and crime." (Gingrich) Even some of the major newspapers in the state supported the proposition, some of these newspapers include The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Monterey Herald.

On the opposite side of the debate, the major financial donors in opposition of the campaign included just one major organization, Californians Against Prop. 47, Sponsored by California Public Safety Institute. Other donors in opposition of the campaign included both the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Peace Officers Association, and even the California Correctional Supervisors Organization. It`s clear to see that these donors would be some of the parties affected if the proposition passed.

Some of the most visible public figures and organizations who opposed the proposition included U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the California District Attorneys Association, Crime Victims United, the California Republican Party and even the Board of Supervisors for two California counties, San Mateo and Riverside respectively. Some of the major newspapers in the state that opposed the proposition were The Bakersfield Californian, The San Diego Union Tribune, and The Modesto Bee.

At first glance, it`s sometimes surprising to see where the two major parties in the state stood on the proposition. Prominent national republican leaders like Newt Gingrich were quick to tout the success of  strategies like this, as politically red states have been seeing the financial benefits of implementing similar crime reclassification policies. Yet, on a state level the California Republican Party opposed the proposition. Bizarrely enough, the California Democrat Party supported the proposition, even though most of the ideas that the proposition proposes originate from conservative principles. With regards to this particular proposition, seems that profit maintained the most sway when it came to soliciting either support or opposition for the policy change.

Many of the public opinion polls available prior to the election gauged that most of the California public supported the proposition. Yet, when comparing the financial resources available to the supports of the campaign to those of the opponents, it`s clear that the individuals and organizations that supported  the proposition vastly outspend their opposition. Not surprisingly enough, ads advocating for the support of the proposition where the ones that where the most visible to the California general public.

Ultimately, the proposition passed and was approved by California voters with 59.27% of the votes. (Ballotpedia) From beginning to end, interest groups played a role in the process of the success of this initiative. It was clear from the onset, just by simply looking at the sponsors and donors of the proposition, that interest groups used the California initiative process to influence and ultimately implement policy change. The financial resources available to both the supports and opponents of the proposition clearly contributed one of the primary factors as it pertained to the election outcome.  From an outside perspective, the election outcome definitely represented a triumph for interest groups. If any lesson can be gained by looking at the success of Proposition 47 it`s that if you can successfully outspend your opposition, and combine it with a low voter turnout, odds are that the policy change you are attempting to implement will almost certainly succeed.                                                                                                                                                 


Ballotpedia: California Proposition 47, Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (2014).       N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.                   s_Initiative_%282014%29#cite_note-25>. 

Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.             .    

Gingrich, Newt, and B. Wayne Hughes Jr. Op-Ed: What California can Learn from the Red                     States on Crime and Punishment . The Los Angeles Times (Opinion), 16 Sept. 2014.             Web. 13 Nov. 2014. criminal-justice-20140917-story.html>.    

The San Diego Union-Tribune: Prop. 47 is Anything but safe for Neighborhoods and Schools. N.p., 6 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.    misdemeanor/>.     


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