News Report, Nancy Deville
Kimberly Gamboa is doing her best to readjust to life after incarceration. She is enrolled in reentry programs, meets with her parole officer regularly and spends countless hours looking for employment.
But, since her release in April, she’s only landed temporary jobs. Gamboa says two felony child abuse convictions are the barrier between her and a good paying, full time job.
In 2014, she served a six-month sentence in West County Jail and now has a four-year felony probation. Her charges are considered “wobblers,” which means it could be reduced to a misdemeanor but only after she’s completed her probation, she said. But Gamboa is hoping the recent voter approved Proposition 47 might give her the break she needs. She’s not sure if her case qualifies, but will look to the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office for help.
Also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Prop 47 reclassifies some non-serious and non-violent drug or property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Crimes covered by the measure include drug possession and the following offenses when less than $950 is involved: shoplifting, check and credit fraud, forgery, theft and possession of stolen goods. Those with histories of violence or sex offenses will be ineligible for the lighter sentences.
Prop 47 will redirect hundreds of millions of dollars to K-12 schools, crime victim assistance, community health services and rehabilitation programs. The proposition passed by 65.8 percent in Contra Costa County.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates roughly 4,770 inmates are eligible to petition for resentencing. The law is also retroactive and qualifying prior felony convictions can be reduced to misdemeanors regardless of how long ago the person was convicted.
Supporters of the initiative believe the legislation will bring financial benefits to the state and be a game changer for the countless inmates either serving time or those like Gamboa who are trying to re-acclimate to society.
“My convictions just keep me in a place that I can’t do the things I need to do,” Gamboa said. “When I do fill out applications and they do a background check, I’m automatically dismissed. I do temporary work but right now I don’t have an assignment. So it hinders me from being financially stable.”
The Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office is working to ensure the inmates are resentenced or released as quickly as possible. Judges heard the first batches of cases the Friday immediately following the election passage of the proposition in November and thirty-eight people were granted release.
“The voters showed they were ready to bring about long needed criminal justice reform, that they are ready to reduce incarceration and shift that money to improving public safety,” said Ellen McDonnell, a Contra Costa County public defender. “For those with low level non-violent felony convictions, we believe Prop 47 relief will reduce the barriers many have faced to finding employment, housing, and access to various types of government programs.”
Since the initiative went into effect, dozens of felony cases have been reduced to misdemeanors and close to a hundred people have been set free in Contra Costa County, McDonnell said. The maximum jail time for most misdemeanors is one year in county jail, and if an inmate has already served more time, they should be released. People have three years to file a petition for prior convictions.
“By overturning some of these lower level offences it can open many doors for people to have opportunities that would not normally exist,” said Tamisha Walker of The Safe Return Project, a local organization that offers support to newly released inmates.
“In Richmond, this will create an opportunity for some to get things off their record, but for most it won’t wipe their slate clean, overall they still would have some felonies,” she said. “My number one job right now is to connect with those coming home through Prop 47 and help them figure out the best way to integrate to be successful.”
Despite the obstacles, Gamboa isn’t giving up.
“People don’t understand how tough it is because they are not in this predicament,” she said. “But to know that my felonies could be dropped to misdemeanors will sure make things better.”
Those with questions about a Prop 47 case can contact Ellen McDonnell, Contra Costa County Deputy Public Defender, at 925-335-8075 or firstname.lastname@example.org.