By Jesse Ornelas
Photo courtesy of Ricky Hernandez
MERCED, Calif. — On first meeting Ricky Hernandez it’s hard to imagine the obstacles he’s overcome. Full of life, outgoing, and with a quick sense of humor, the only lingering signs of his past as an addict and former prisoner are his memories and the stories he tells.
Throughout his youth and early adulthood, Hernandez made choices that landed him behind bars. He says he never imagined that his actions and the stigma of incarceration would go on to haunt him throughout his life.
After completing his sentence, Hernandez — like thousands of others with felonies on their records — quickly learned that his sentence did not end the minute he walked out of a correctional facility.
Being treated as a second class citizen became the norm.
“I really felt the stigma of being a convicted felon,” said Hernandez as he reminisced about his experience. “You are told that once you do your time, you can live free, but in reality the second part of your sentence begins when you are released.”
Hernandez attributes the treatment he received to his felony drug conviction.
“I was getting turned down for jobs and wasn’t taken seriously,” continued Hernandez. “They did not see me as someone capable of being a productive member of society.”
Despite the difficulties, Hernandez was determined not to end up in prison again and to provide for his family, which also struggled with the financial and emotional repercussions of his incarceration.
Then, in November of 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47 by a margin of six-to-one, and Hernandez was finally able to regain control over his life.
Proposition 47 changes the way the state classifies certain non-violent crimes. It also allows California residents who have been convicted of simple drug possession, property crime under $950, or other nonviolent offenses to change their felonies to misdemeanors. Doing so will provide access to jobs, educational loans and housing assistance previously unavailable to individuals with a felony on their record.
The law is also expected to help reduce prison populations, taking the savings from those reductions and diverting them into a fund intended to enhance school and neighborhood safety efforts.
Prop. 47 has a three year limit, and will expire in Nov. 2017.
While hailed as a victory for supporters of criminal justice reform, Prop. 47 also saw vocal opposition from groups including law enforcement. The California associations representing sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys came out against the measure, while Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke told the Merced Sun Star last year that Prop. 47 “lets the bad guys know there are no consequences for their actions.”
Critics of Prop. 47 have also cited a statewide rise in property crimes since the law was passed as evidence of its negative impact on community safety. But according to a study by Stanford’s Justice Advocacy Project, which had a hand in drafting Prop. 47, the recidivism rate among those released under Prop. 47 is only 5 percent, compared to an average of 42 percent for those who do not fall within the parameters of the law.
“The data that has been released by state agencies … indicates that those who’ve been released early under Proposition 47 are not responsible for the crimes being reported,” Michael Romano with the Justice Advocacy Project told the San Diego Union Tribune in November.
After learning about Prop. 47, Hernandez went down to the Public Defender’s office to seek help and was informed that he qualified for reclassification. Within a couple of months, his felony had been reduced to a misdemeanor and Hernandez found himself gainfully employed.
Now, Hernandez serves as a support system for those in recovery who are struggling due to their records. He encourages people to apply for Prop 47.
“When I go to the drug court,” said Hernandez, “I hear people talking about overcoming obstacles after reclassifying their felonies. It makes me so happy to know that people are being given second chances now.”
For more information about Prop 47, you can visit the Public Defender’s office website or walk-in on Mondays from 10-12pm. Their office is located at 2150 M St, Merced, Ca 95340.