Last week, California voters approved Proposition 47, which reduces former felonies such as forgery, fraud, shoplifting, petty theft and possession of small amounts of drugs to misdemeanors instead of felonies. The proposition went into effect immediately, leading to the release of hundreds of people who were imprisoned for these crimes, though rightly, it doesn't allow sentencing reductions for prisoners with histories of violence or sex offenses.
California will send 25 percent of the approximately $1 billion it projects to save on justice system costs to education funding, and 65 percent to mental health and drug treatment. (The remaining 10 percent will go to victim services.) All three of these areas are definitely worthy of the money, but I think the percentage for education should be higher because of the vast research proving that people with more education tend to commit less crime. Although mental health and drug treatment funding is obviously important as well, education often occurs prior to the crime, whereas rehabilitation tends to occur after the crime has been committed.
David Dow, a Houston attorney and founder of Texas Innocence Network, said in a TED Talk that for every $15,000 the nation spends on "intervening in the lives of economically and otherwise disadvantaged kids... we save $80,000 in crime-related costs down the road." Additionally, according to a report from Alliance for Excellent Education in 2013, the U.S. could save up to $18.5 billion in annual crime costs if the high school male graduation rate increased by 5 percent. In 2012, this rate was 77 percent, and females' was 84 percent. Focusing on prevention is more practical than waiting until people at risk of becoming criminals commit their first crimes. Although we cannot foresee every possible crime, nor can we successfully improve — or quantify — every aspect of a disadvantaged child's life, if we improve education, after-school services and other prevention methods, that would definitely help. I'd like to see states start focusing on these early parts of people's lives while deliberating over criminal justice reform.
Texas has taken some surprising steps in the past decade to reform the justice system, which I definitely appreciate, but they have been fairly minor compared to what we should be doing. Texas is, for the most part, still focused more on the punishment side rather than the prevention side of crime, and this is understandable — especially from a political point of view — because the effects of changes to prison sentences and probation can be seen much sooner than the effects of changes to the education system and other factors that would help prevent crime. But, failing to focus on prevention methods hurts a state in the long run, and Prop. 47 shows that California has realized this.
The California proposition definitely has its flaws — one problem is that suspects arrested for misdemeanors don't have to submit DNA samples, and another is that theft of guns worth less than $950 is now a misdemeanor — but the prevention-oriented mindset that the authors of this proposition likely have is something from which our state could benefit. I hope the next legislative session brings Texas closer to focusing less on dealing with criminals and more on preventing people from becoming criminals in the first place.