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An Explanation of California’s Prop 57

As written by Barhoma Law in An Explanation of California's Prop 57


For decades, criminal law was seen as a “one-way ratchet” in that, whenever changes were made to the criminal law, they almost always made the laws stricter. Typically, this is a function of high crime rates, and the political pressure lawmakers face from their constituents. Generally, lawmakers do not want to be seen as being “soft” on crime, so they continually propose increasingly strict laws to prove they mean business. However, California constitutional law provides citizens the ability to propose ballot initiatives. If someone can get enough signatures to support a ballot initiative, the entire state will vote on the initiative and, if it passes, it will become law. This is what happened with California’s Proposition 57.

Proposition 57, or Prop 57, as it is more commonly known, is a ballot initiative passed in 2016. Prop 57 implements broad criminal justice reform as it pertains to parole consideration and juvenile offenders. Proponents of Prop 57 emphasized that the continued incarceration of many inmates was not only overly harsh, but wasted tens of millions of dollars a year in valuable tax revenue.

Under the terms of Prop 57, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must allow for defendants convicted of certain non-violent crimes to be considered for parole upon completing their sentence for the primary offense. Previously, various sentencing enhancements could keep someone in jail longer than their original sentence; for example, if they had committed multiple crimes against multiple victims. Prop 57 eliminates the requirement that defendants serve the enhanced portion of the sentence, allowing for earlier parole consideration.

Prop 57 also changed the way that inmates received credit for their behavior while in custody. Previously, the law imposed strict limits on the amount of credit an inmate could receive for rehabilitation, good behavior, job training, working while in custody, or educational achievements. However, Prop 57 allows the Department of Corrections to award more credit to inmates, potentially moving up their parole date.

Finally, Prop 57 effectively repealed Prop 21, which allowed for the direct-file of juvenile offenders in the adult criminal justice system. Prop 21 placed the discretion of whether to prosecute a juvenile as an adult solely with the prosecutor. However, under Prop 57, the judge retains the decision as to whether a juvenile is better served in the juvenile justice system or the adult criminal justice system.

Prop 57, as well as several other recent laws, have started to change the landscape for those serving lengthy terms of incarceration. Thus, it may be possible for some inmates to get paroled much earlier than they originally anticipated.

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