Prop. 47 reduces penalties for Sonoma County felons (w/video)

The passage of Prop. 47, which reduces some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, is a sea change for the court system. A look at the impact in Sonoma County.|

When Judge Lawrence Ornell took a seat in his Santa Rosa courtroom the morning after Election Day, a man with an “I voted” sticker on his lapel walked up to the bench, beaming.

Ornell noticed the man’s sunny disposition then looked down at the charge. It was possession of cocaine, an offense that a day earlier was a felony but with the passage of Proposition 47 by California voters had been reduced to a misdemeanor.

His chances of receiving a stiff punishment vanished overnight.

“He was smiling ear to ear,” Ornell said Thursday, recounting the man’s good fortune. “He was a happy man.”

The scene is playing out frequently these days as courts, prosecutors and police grapple with a new reality intended to cut prison crowding and save hundreds of millions of dollars for rehabilitation.

Proposition 47 reclassifies nonviolent offenses that used to be felonies - including many property crimes valued at $950 or less, grand theft, forgery, shoplifting and simple drug possession - and reduces them to misdemeanors carrying lighter punishments.

Some estimate a third of all felonies, many drug-related, will be downgraded to lesser crimes, creating a domino effect that will keep petty criminals out of custody and free some who are already behind bars.

Statewide, as many as 40,000 people a year could be affected, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said.

State prison officials estimate 4,770 inmates would be eligible to petition the court for resentencing and possible release. Nineteen are from Sonoma County, local prosecutors said, and the Sheriff’s Office has identified 209 of its 1,200 jail inmates for possible consideration.

All would go before a judge who would review the details of their offenses and their records. Those previously convicted of violent or serious crimes would not qualify, Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker said.

“It will take time to go through the criminal histories and see which ones are appropriate,” Walker said.

Also affected by the change are thousands of people convicted of eligible crimes in the past. They can ask for reductions, restoring certain rights that usually are stripped from felons. Public defenders will handle many of the cases.

“It’s a pretty major change,” said Kristine Burk, the county’s chief deputy public defender. “We’ve been getting calls for weeks leading up to this, asking what the process will be. People are paying attention.”

Additionally, police officers will approach their jobs differently under Proposition 47. They won’t be able to get search warrants to investigate the new misdemeanors because they are typically only issued for felonies.

And with more offenses now considered misdemeanors, officers will be able to issue citations on a broader range of offenses instead of arresting people and booking them into jail. Among the crimes that have been reduced are possession of personal amounts of heroin and cocaine.

“Officers have the potential to write them tickets now,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said. “It’s a change for us, culturally speaking.”

As expected, the effects of Proposition 47 were noticeable in courtrooms the first day.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys scrambled to amend charges. Judges dealt with pressing matters like reduced bail amounts.

Recent arrestees came to court and were pleasantly surprised.

“The people have determined your newest crime is a strict misdemeanor,” Ornell told a woman facing a heroin possession charge who hoped to be released soon.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said about 30 percent of the cases in the main felony courtroom could be eligible for reductions. Requests were pouring in this week. She estimated the new law could apply in about 300 cases a year going back to 2005.

“We are being deluged with petitions,” Ravitch said. “We just received 10 or 12 in our office.”

Ravitch lobbied against the measure along with Sheriff Steve Frietas, in part out of concern that reduced punishments for drug addicts and thieves could lead to more crime.

But she agrees with the spirit of the law, which she said is to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders.

“Sonoma County has always dealt with drug offenders in liberal fashion with an emphasis on treatment,” Ravitch said.

Logistically, she said it would require a shifting of some prosecutors from felony to misdemeanor courtrooms to deal with expanding caseloads there. She has been meeting with criminal justice leaders including judges, probation officials and Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi in the weeks leading up to the election.

“I think it’s going to change the way we do our jobs,” Ravitch said. “Hopefully, we don’t become a revolving-door judicial system.”

Around the state, cities that prosecute their own misdemeanors are expecting to see an increased workload. The city of Sonoma is the only city in Sonoma County to do so. But city prosecutor Bob Smith said he doesn’t think the new law will change much in the tourist town.

“I think my situation is unique because the jurisdiction is only 2½ square miles,” Smith said. “We really don’t see a lot of drug possession.”

Supporters argue the new law is a good thing that will save hundreds of millions of dollars a year now spent on warehousing minor criminals. The money will be redirected to schools, victim assistance programs, mental health and drug treatment, according to supporters.

Burk said some chronic criminals may catch a break. However, she said, the law will bring overall benefit by keeping people out of institutions and contributing to society.

“I do think the felonization of our community isn’t good for anyone,” Burk said. “It really inhibits the ability to be productive when you’re carrying around a felony for the rest of your life.”

Burk said fears that Proposition 47 will jeopardize public safety are unfounded.

“Sure, it’s a major shift,” she said. “Do I think we’ll have criminals running rampant on our streets? No. The ‘sky is falling’ mantra is being overplayed. The sky is not falling.”

Presiding Judge Ken Gnoss said a priority will be reviewing people in custody with pending cases or serving sentences to see if they qualify for reductions. He said he may open a special courtroom to handle it.

The cost of it all was unclear, he said.

“If they are sitting in jail, we want to address those people first,” he said.

Still unresolved is how to deal with people on supervised probation.

On one hand, they may have been convicted of felonies that are now misdemeanors and therefore should be released. But it could be argued they received probation instead of a more serious punishment and the new law doesn’t apply.

“At this point, it’s wise to take a deep breath and see what we have and evaluate the system,” said Robert Ochs, the county’s chief probation officer. “It’s just going to have to play out.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Paul Payne at 568-5312 or ? ?On Twitter @ppayne.

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