(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A debate over the proper punishment for crimes like simple drug possession and petty theft is headed to this fall’s statewide ballot, with backers arguing that reducing the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor would reap both fiscal and societal benefits.

The initiative, authored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, officially made the ballot Thursday afternoon — the final day for measures to qualify for the Nov. 4 election. Elections officials in California’s 58 counties reported enough valid voter signatures in a random sampling to place the measure on the ballot.

The initiative, one of six measures on the November ballot, would use the money saved from prison sentences on K-12 school programs for at-risk students, trauma programs for crime victims, and mental health or substance abuse programs.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the initiative, if enacted by voters, could save several hundred million dollars in annual state and county criminal justice costs.

Gascón has called the initiative a way to continue the push for reform of California’s system of crime and punishment. In 2012, voters modified the long-standing “three strikes” law to focus on the maximum punishment for violent crimes.

By state law, all ballot measures must qualify no later than 131 days before an election — Thursday for this fall’s election. Still, the ballot is unlikely to be finalized for several more weeks; the Legislature (which can waive those election rules) continues work on a revamped water bond and a proposed school construction bond.

Even with those measures, November is on course to feature one of the shortest general election ballots in the 103-year history of direct democracy in the Golden State. The record for fewest propositions was set in November 2000, with only eight measures.

The nonviolent crimes initiative joins a ballot featuring proposals to enact a new rainy day state budget reserve; to give the state insurance commissioner new power to regulate health insurance rates; to loosen the state’s 1975 cap on medical malpractice awards; and to overturn, via referendum, approval of a new off-reservation Indian casino in the Central Valley.

Author

John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he served nine years as the statehouse bureau chief for KQED Public Radio and The California Report, and most recently as political editor for the Sacramento ABC-TV affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John served as moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and was recently named by The Washington Post as one of the nation's most influential statehouse reporters.  Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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