California just voted to release all their drug prisoners and will no longer allow felony convictions for drug offenses. This is a dramatic reversal in policy for an American state. As a whole the United States of America have stridently maintained their stance on the drug war in line with the federal position.

This new policy comes on the heels of the new report, which we covered, see link below; showing that drug policy or being “tough on crime”, the world over, no matter how severe, does not affect drug use. This theory will now be put to the test in one of the USA’s most influential states.

The approval of this measure on Tuesday marks a major shift against mass incarceration and could potentially lead to the release of state prisoners in California.

Non-violent felonies, such as shoplifting or drug possession, will be downgraded to misdemeanours under this new legislation being proposed; Proposition 47. There is now potential for as many as 10,000 people who may be eligible for early release due to this new measure and courts are also estimating that the annual felony conviction rate will drop by 40,000 state-wide.

In terms of financial benefits coming from this new proposal, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the new measure will save hundreds of millions of dollars on prison costs. That money is being earmarked to be rerouted towards education, mental health and addiction services.

This new piece of legislation may also be designed to help California deal with the massive overcrowding problem currently going on in the state prisons. The state is still struggling to release enough prisoners to comply with the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court order to relieve the crowding issue.

Jail-overcrowdingCalifornia once led the United States in tough on crime policies, which we now know don’t work, such as the infamous three strikes felony law. Proposition 47 however has led in all polling that has been conducted on it. The support of the bill has also managed to reach across the aisle with support from former Republican Speaker, Newt Gingrich, as well as liberal performers such as John Legend and Jay-Z.

The only voice in opposition has come from those arguing that with this new legislation, it would now be more difficult to prosecute those who are in possession of date-rape drugs or felony gun theft. Valid concerns, but difficulty should not stand in the way of making a law that helps serve only people in prison for ludicrous three-strike offences or for possession of marijuana. These concerns have in fact been summarily dismissed by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

Keith Humphreys, a drug addiction expert who supported the measure said “The country seems to have come to a different place. I think, most fundamentally, because crime is down. When people are not feeling terrified, they’re more willing to back off on the tough-on-crime stuff.”

This shift in policy, in terms of being tough on crime could could well be a major example for the rest of the world if this Californian example is successful. If the prisoners who have not committed violent crimes are allowed a second chance there could be a significant decrease in crime. Opponents of this motion will however say that this is allowing criminals a chance to reoffend rather than punishing them for their crimes.

On a purely state level for California this makes sense. It allows money that is being overspent in prisons to be allocated to other areas that need work and will allow that money to be put to better use. It will also solve the overwhelming prison population issues which have been an issue in the state for some time. The issue which I can see going forward will be how this new policy will affect crime. If there is no significant increase in crime why would this measure not be rolled out nationwide rather than just state-wide?