Prop. 47 got thousands out of prison. Now, $103 million in savings will go towards keeping them out

Vonya Quarles grew up in South Los Angeles and describes herself as a third-generation convicted felon. But by the time she took the microphone at a Highland town hall meeting in January 2016, she was a lawyer and executive director of a Riverside County nonprofit that helps connect the homeless, formerly incarcerated and mentally ill to transitional housing.

With applause from the audience, she urged state officials not to create “an additional funding stream for the sheriff,” but to pour new funds into community groups, the kind that had helped her kick a drug addiction and get off the streets. That was the fundamental promise of Proposition 47, the sweeping, controversial 2014 ballot measure that downgraded six drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors and allowed defendants to renegotiate their punishments. This spring, the state will begin the process of awarding $103 million in grants, all funded by the ballot initiative’s cost savings from keeping fewer nonviolent offenders in prison.

For the measure’s large coalition of supporters, including criminal justice advocates such as Quarles, it is a long-awaited step forward. Other states have passed similar laws. But California is the lone state investing the savings from keeping fewer people behind bars in services to help people stay out of prison.

Nearly 60 public agencies have submitted program proposals released last week. They include cities and counties, health and human services divisions and probation and law enforcement departments statewide. Among their petitions are initiatives to provide youth and adult offenders with counselors and case managers, therapy, housing and job opportunities.

Tasked with choosing which programs receive funding is an executive steering committee composed of criminal justice officials, advocates and former inmates who know the system from the inside. Not long after she spoke up in Highland, Quarles joined the group.

“We have listened to law enforcement talk about how horrible Prop. 47 is,” she said in an interview this month. “Now we have a chance to help the people who are hurting.”

learn more

Chris Alexakis