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The movement for a more humane criminal justice system was given a huge push forward last week as California voters overwhelming voted in favor of Proposition 47. With the passage of Prop 47, non-violent felonies, including drug-related crimes and petty theft are now reclassified as misdemeanors, thus reducing punishments, including time in jail. Furthermore, the money that would be used in prison spending for these reclassified crimes will now be used to fund substance use prevention and treatment, mental health counseling and community schools.

Prop 47 Criminal Justice

The increased funding for social service programs could have a profound impact on reducing criminal activity. Expanding these programs will reduce social barriers and access to services, which in turn could prevent individuals from committing crimes in the first place. And it should not go unnoticed that with the passage of Prop 47, Californians chose to fund schools over prisons. The voters have decided to invest in young people and their potential. Public schools and local communities will now have more resources to provide support and programs that empower youth, including those at risk of dropping out of high school.

As a social worker, working in the community, it is clear to me that increased access and development of social service programs both to mitigate the circumstances that often lead to criminal activity as well as rehabilitate those who commit crimes is imperative.

The passage of Prop 47 is truly a monumental shift in thinking about crime and what constituents justice in our society. With the three largest mental health providers in US being jails, it seems something has gone terribly wrong in our justice system. It seems we might actually be criminalizing mental illness, along with drug addiction. Wouldn’t it be better to provide support and treatment to these individuals rather than jail time?

As a social worker, working in the community, it is clear to me that increased access and development of social service programs both to mitigate the circumstances that often lead to criminal activity as well as rehabilitate those who commit crimes is imperative. Services such as: substance abuse prevention and treatment, mental health counseling, job readiness, supportive housing, childcare and gang prevention would assist in preventing crime and would surly support those who have engaged in criminal activity. These social services, in conjunction with strong efforts to reduce poverty, discrimination and violence would have a positive influence on our society.

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The development and sustainability of these services could have a profound impact on people and communities. If nothing else, these services would honor the dignity and potential in people regardless of their life experiences or actions. It would provide them with support, treatment and opportunities. It would show them another way. It would be an alternative. And among other things, it would encourage young people to stay in school, help families stay together, curtail violence in communities, connect those struggling with mental illness and addiction to services and create safer neighborhoods.

Our collective movement for racial and social justice cannot let this moment pass by. We must harness the momentum of Prop 47 to push for continued reforms in the criminal justice system not just here in California but across the nation. The ultimate goal of these reforms should aim to create a criminal justice that is more equitable, restorative and humane.

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Frank McAlpin