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A Better Way to Balance the Budget—and Protect Public Safety

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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June 10, 2009

A series of common sense, waste-cutting proposals would address two of California’s biggest problems: our overburdened, dysfunctional corrections system, and the ever increasing multibillion dollar deficit. Implementing these proposals would save the state $7.5 billion in five years and improve public safety, so what are we waiting for?

Over the last 20 years, California’s corrections budget has increased by 450 percent. What are we spending all of that money on?

  • We pay over $380 million every year to lock up over 1,600 young people in youth prisons, even though local programs have proven cheaper and more effective at rehabilitating
  • We waste billions of dollars each year to lock up thousands of nonviolent drug offenders even though community-based treatment is cheaper and actually gets people off drugs
  • We throw away hundreds of millions of dollars each year on the largest, most dysfunctional death penalty system in the country even though permanent imprisonment is cheaper and just as effective

Here are three simple proposals to trim the waste and improve our corrections system.

  • Close the Division of Juvenile Justice Facilities—Save $1 Billion in Five Years (Proposed by Books Not Bars Initiative of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice)

    California taxpayers currently pay an outrageous $234,000 to incarcerate each youth in Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), or $380 million total each year. Transferring all 1,624 young people to programs administered by county probation departments and closing the decrepit DJF would allow the state to provide $115,000 per youth to county programs and still save $200 million each year. The counties have enough room to house the young people, and still maintain a surplus of beds.

    Additional savings would come from avoiding expensive renovations needed to the dismal juvenile prisons and by the selling state land they currently sit on.

    Act now: Call for an end to the Division of Juvenile Justice!

  • Keep the Response to Petty Drug Possession Local—Save $5.5 Billion in Five Years(Proposed by Drug Policy Alliance)

    The biggest bulk of cash — $5.5 billion — can be saved by localizing the response to low-level drug offenses. This proposal would reduce the burden thousands of simple drug possession offenders now place on the state’s public safety infrastructure, and free up resources for effective rehabilitation.

    We can save an astounding $5.5 billion in five years if we take three simple steps:

    • Stop housing 12,000 people in prison for simple drug possession to save $2.5 billion.
    • Stop sending people to prison for drug possession with intent to sell to save an additional $2.5 billion.
    • End parole for people convicted of drug possession who have already served their time in state prison to save $675 million in 5 years.

    Removing these nonviolent drug offenders from our state corrections system will allow us to keep critical funding for the state’s addiction treatment programs which prevent reoffending and ultimately strengthen public safety.

    Act now: Demand an end to wasteful drug war spending!

  • Convert Death Sentences to Permanent Imprisonment—Save $1 Billion in Five Years(Proposed by the ACLU Affiliates of California)

    It currently costs California $137 million annually to administer the death penalty. The alternative — permanent imprisonment for all 680 inmates on death row— would cost the state $11 million a year. By converting all current death sentences to sentences of life without possibility of parole, the state will save approximately $125 million each year, or $600 million in five years.

    Additionally, temporarily suspending new death sentences for five years will eliminate the need to construct a new death row facility, saving about $400 million.

    Any attempt to “speed up” or “fix” the death penalty will only cost millions more, so the only way to both save money and protect public safety is to suspend the death penalty and convert all death sentences to permanent imprisonment.

    Act now: Sign the petition calling on Gov. Schwarzenegger to convert all death sentences to save $1 billion in five years.

These proposals are not only aimed at cutting wasteful spending; they are designed to improve public safety, bolster youth and drug rehabilitation programs that do work, and advance the long-needed adjustments to the California corrections system. The bottom line is California can save $7.5 billion in five years and improve public safety.

— By Zachary Norris, Books Not Bars Director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Drug Policy Alliance Deputy State Director, Southern California; and Natasha Minsker, ACLU of Northern California Death Penalty Policy Director

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