Rollback of Crime Leniency Laws
Restricts Parole for Non-Violent Offenders, Authorizes Felony Sentences for Certain Offenses Treated as Misdemeanors
Makes a number of changes to the state’s criminal justice laws on sentencing, punishments and parole.
What the Measure Would Do
Proposition 20 would make several key changes to state law around the criminal justice system, partially undoing prior reforms.
First, Prop 20 would change laws around, and increase penalties for, theft-related crime. It would allow prosecutors to charge, and judges to sentence, certain theft and fraud-related crimes as either a misdemeanor or a felony, known as “wobbler” crimes. This would reverse changes made under Prop 47 and result in longer, stricter sentences for many non-violent offenses. Prop 20 would also create two new types of crime in the state code: serial crime and organized retail crime. Both involve repeated petty theft and would be chargeable as wobbler crimes.
Second, Prop 20 would make a number of changes to the parole review process for non-violent crimes established under Prop 57, and would exclude some people from the possibility of parole altogether. For those who could be considered for parole, Prop 20 mandates a process in which the prosecutors and crime victims can participate in the parole review board hearing. It also requires that people who are denied release wait two additional years (rather than one) before being reconsidered for parole.
Third, Prop 20 makes changes to the parole and Post-Release Community Supervision programs, which provide supervision of people following their release from prison. Under Prop 20, if an offender violates the terms of their supervision for a third time, local probation departments must petition to revoke the post-release supervision, which could result in stricter supervision conditions or imprisonment.
Finally, Prop 20 requires state and local law enforcement agencies to collect DNA samples from adults convicted of certain misdemeanors, like shoplifting and forging checks. Today, samples are collected from adults and youth convicted of felonies as well as those required to register as sex offenders or arsonists.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the fiscal impact of Prop 20 to be in the tens of millions of dollars annually, resulting from increases in county jail and prison populations, increases in state and local court-related costs, and increases in law enforcement costs related to collecting and processing DNA samples.1
In the 1990s and early to mid-2000s, California’s prison population increased significantly as a result of tougher-on-crime laws like Three Strikes (1994), mandatory minimum sentences and juveniles prosecuted as adults. The prison population peaked at more than 165,000 inmates in 2006, in a system built to hold only 85,000. These harsh sentencing laws disproportionately impacted people of color, particularly Black Californians. In 2010, Black people made up 6% of California’s population but 27% of the state’s jails and prisons.2
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates. The Supreme Court ruling brought heightened awareness to the inhumane conditions in California prisons, particularly for people experiencing mental illness and other health maladies.
AB 109 was passed several months later to reduce state prison populations by moving non-violent offenders to county jails. Over the next several years, California voters passed Propositions 47 and 57 to further reduce prison populations and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. These reforms have worked: in 2011, there were 431 inmates per 100,000 residents, and by 2019 the number was down to 317.3 Meanwhile, overall crime rates are at or near historic lows. California’s rates of property crime and violent crime have dropped significantly over the past several decades.4
Despite these trends, Proposition 20 aims to address what some in law enforcement see as public safety problems created by AB 109 and Propositions 47 and 57. Some point to recent increases in larceny, which involves theft without the use of force such as shoplifting. Current legislation (AB 1065, Jones-Sawyer) seeks to reverse these increases in larceny.
Prop 20 was placed on the ballot by voter signatures, funded in large part by police and sheriff’s unions in Southern California. As an initiative statute, it requires a simple majority (50% plus one vote) to pass.
Prop 20 would roll back significant reforms to the California criminal justice system and would lead to increased rates of incarceration. This measure would be particularly harmful to Black, Indigenous and Latino Californians who experience profound bias throughout the criminal justice system, from neighborhood over-policing to discriminatory sentencing. People of color remain disproportionately overrepresented in California’s jails and prisons, though Proposition 47 has, in fact, reduced racial disparities across key criminal justice outcomes, such as arrest and booking rates.5
Research also shows that incarceration exacerbates economic hardship and racial disparities. Formerly incarcerated individuals face structural barriers to employment opportunities, and within this group, Black women experience the highest levels of unemployment, while white men experience the lowest.6 By holding more people in prison for longer, this measure would increase the economic hardship experienced by incarcerated people, those who support them and their communities. This economic burden would likely disproportionately fall on over-policed communities and people of color.
- SPUR could not identify any pros for this measure.
- State prisons remain overcrowded, in part because many prior laws were not applied retroactively. Prop 20 would likely lead to an increase in incarceration and a return to overcrowded and inhumane conditions for inmates.
- By restricting parole for non-violent offenders, this measure will further punish people who may deserve a shot at rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
- Prop 20 would increase punishments for a variety of crimes, leading to more incarceration. Prison sentences have severe economic consequences for individuals and families. Felony convictions place barriers to employment, probation or parole supervision costs vulnerable families a meaningful amount of money, and time spent imprisoned has economic ripple effects that culminate in loss of wealth and income.
- This measure will increase costs at a time of extreme budgetary crisis. This measure also directly opposes efforts to realign resources to rehabilitative and social services outside the criminal justice system, such as housing and mental health services.
Proposition 20 would reverse years of criminal justice reform that has reduced California’s prison population while not increasing crime. Rolling back these reforms when California’s prisons are still overcrowded, people of color remain over-represented in those prisons and crime is at historic lows would be an unjust and indefensible policy decision. Additionally, this measure would put a significant and disproportionate economic burden onto people involved in the legal system and their communities.
1. Legislative Analyst's Office November 3, 2020 Ballot Analysis, Proposition 20, https://lao.ca.gov/ballot/2020/Prop20-110320.pdf
2. Leah Sakala, “Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity,” Prison Policy Initiative, May 28, 2014, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html
3. Monthly Total Population Reports, California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/research/monthly-total-population-report-archive-2019/
4. Scott Graves, “Criminal Justice Reform is Working in California,” California Budget & Policy Center, August 2020, https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/criminal-justice-reform-is-working-in-california/
5. Magnus Lofstrom, Brandon Martin, Steven Raphael, “Proposition 47's Impact on Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice Outcomes,” Public Policy Institute of California, June 2020, https://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/proposition-47s-impact-on-racial...
6. Lucius Couloute and Daniel Kopf “Out of Prison & Out of Work: Unemployment Among Formerly Incarcerated People,” July 2018, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/outofwork.html