In a past life, Richard Martin was a rock musician. His bands were among the more popular of the 1990s San Francisco -- a promo photo shows he and his band mates in matching white jump suits posing in the middle of Montgomery Street. But in the backstage of Martin’s own life, he’d turned down a dark corridor of drug addiction.
"A lot of drugs around then," reminisced Martin. "I think almost everybody in the band got strung out."
Martin’s battle with drugs landed him in jail over the years for shoplifting and drug possession - possession of a hypodermic needle.
"I stole a lot of things," Martin said. "But I mostly stole things you can immediately turn around for money, so cigarettes."
Eventually his life of addiction-fueled crimes turned him into a convicted felon. Even 15 years after getting clean, his past still lives with him.
"I always have to click that box that says ‘yes I’ve been convicted of a felony,’” Martin said. "I’ve never been able to get a job in the private sector."
In fact, Martin’s record as a convicted felon prevented he and his wife from adopting a child. And despite a master’s degree in English, his teaching credential was revoked once the authorities learned of his record.
"What they call the collateral consequences of being a felon have haunted me my adult life," said Martin, who now helps run a non-profit organization in Oakland that helps former convicted felons turn their lives around.
The kind of small-time crimes Martin committed in servitude to a drug addiction are the sort of crimes that would be redesigned as misdemeanors under Proposition 47, which will appear on the November ballot.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon co-authored the proposition as an attempt to reduce jail and prison populations, and to give drug addicts a chance to avoid hard prison time in favor of treatment.
"We need to deal with addiction," Gascon said. "And addiction cannot be cured by incarceration."
Prop 47 would re-designate crimes like shoplifting, drug possession for personal use, check fraud and petty theft under $950 as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Offenders could still serve up to a year in jail for convictions. Gascon said the proposition would not help felons with serious crimes on their records.
"If you have prior convictions for murder, sexual assault, rape, child assault," Gascon said. "Prop 47 will not give you any relief."
Gascon estimates 10,000 inmates serving time would be eligible to file for a reduction of their charges under the new law. While he admitted that could put a temporary strain on the state’s justice system, he said Prop 47 could eventually save the state up to $250 million a year in prison costs.
"We’re going to take the savings from our prison system and we’re going to put it into treatment for mental health, substance abuse," Gascon said.
Morgan Hill Police Chief David Swing, who heads the legal arm of the California Police Chiefs Association, said the passage of Prop 47 would be dangerous for the state. He said career criminals could exploit the law’s leniency to get away with habitual crimes.
"One of the things that 47 does that has some negative impacts is it removes prosecutorial discretion in the charging of crimes," Swing said.
Swing also doubts the proposition’s ability to steer addicts into treatment, saying the milder threat of a misdemeanor charge wouldn’t serve as big an incentive for criminals to opt for treatment. Ultimately, he said sentencing guidelines shouldn’t be left to a public vote.
"Is there an opportunity to have a robust and meaningful discussion around the topic of sentencing reform? Absolutely," Swing said. "But that discussion is best held in Sacramento."
Gascon said the state needs the thoughtful application of Prop 47 because the War On Drugs has proven a failure - resulting in prisons full of addicts scaling a slope of prison-schooled criminality.
"There’s a lot of signs that tell us incarcerating people that have mental health problems, have substance abuse problems doesn’t work," Gascon said.
Martin grinned at another publicity photo showing he and his band mates baring the serious expressions of rock stars. His gaze wandered to another photo - his own mugshot in the San Francisco Jail. He searched his thoughts for the words to describe Prop 47.
"Every voter who put this across would have a stake in the recovery of the people that they were sending to treatment," Martin said.