Expert Commentary

California’s Prop 47 reduced felony drug arrest rates, racial disparities

After the passage of California’s Proposition 47, which reduced criminal penalties for drug possession, felony drug arrest rates declined and racial disparities among these arrests decreased.


After the passage of California’s Proposition 47, which reduced criminal penalties for drug possession, felony drug arrest rates declined and racial disparities among these arrests decreased, according to new research in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study, led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, looked at all drug arrest data for the state between 2011 and 2016, totaling over 1 million arrests.

In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, reclassifying the criminal offenses for possession of narcotics, controlled substances and concentrated cannabis from felonies to misdemeanors. A few other crimes, including petty theft and receiving stolen property, also received reclassifications as a result of the new law.

The change aimed to reduce excessive punishment and overcrowding in prisons. More broadly, reducing excessive punishment has spillover effects for those convicted of drug offenses, considering the repercussions associated with felony convictions. “The collateral consequences of felony drug convictions are severe,” the researchers add. “Impacts on immigration status and access to jobs, health benefits, housing, and financial support for higher education may exacerbate racial/ethnic disparities in health and social outcomes.”

Previously, as a result of the mid-1980s crackdown on the drug trade (commonly known as the “War on Drugs”), drug arrests skyrocketed, and people of color — and especially black people — were disproportionately affected, according to a study published in Justice Quarterly in 2015. The authors report that in 1980, drug arrests among black people compared with white people stood at a ratio of about 3 to 1. This increased to about 5.5 to 1 less than 10 years later.

A 2017 study in Demography adds further context: between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of black men who received a felony conviction rose from 13.3 to 33 percent. For the entire adult male population over the same date range, felony conviction rates also increased, albeit less dramatically, jumping from 5.3 percent to 12.8 percent.

In the American Journal of Public Health study, the researchers found that following the adoption of Proposition 47:

  • Overall, the disparity in felony drug arrests between black and white populations decreased. In the first month after the proposition’s adoption, the disparity between the number of black and white felony drug arrests made per month decreased from 81 to 44 per 100,000.
  • For all racial and ethnic groups, felony drug arrest rates continually decreased. In the first month after adoption, arrest rates among black people declined by 60 percent and arrest rates among white and Latino people declined by 69 percent. Over a year, the researchers estimate reductions of 66 percent, 76 percent and 74 percent among black, white and Latino people, respectively.
  • Despite absolute declines in racial disparities, proportionally, black people experienced the smallest decline in felony drug arrest rates, so relative disparities persisted. The authors suggest this might be because Proposition 47 did not reclassify all felony drug offenses (e.g., sale) as misdemeanors. They explain that white people more commonly were arrested for possession, resulting in a large benefit for the group following the reclassification. On the other hand, black people had larger proportions of offenses that were not reclassified, such as selling drugs, and so they didn’t benefit as much from the change.

“Our findings suggest that reclassifying drug offenses to misdemeanors is an effective approach to decreasing felony arrests across racial/ethnic groups and absolute differences between Blacks and Whites,” the authors conclude.

According to an Urban Institute report, between 2010 and 2016, 24 states enacted policy reforms to reduce their prison populations, including Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas.

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