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Trim Prison Spending, Reinvest in California’s Future with ACLU’s New Web Challenge

Caitlin O'Neill,
Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Associate,
ACLU of Northern California
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September 4, 2012

Are there policy choices California’s legislators could make that would result in less incarceration spending and more education spending?

There absolutely are. And we’re inviting you to make them.

Think Outside the Box is a new web challenge created by the ACLU of California that allows people to get a real-time sense of how the bottom line in California, home of one of the nation’s most overcrowded prison systems, would fare if prisons and jails were placed at the center of the budgetary chopping block.

Mired in an addiction to incarceration that is costing taxpayers billions of dollars while the state’s recidivism rate approaches 70 percent, state and local leaders are struggling to close record budget deficits. Legislators are making deep cuts in core programs like education and social services, which can help reduce recidivism. Yet, funds for these programs continue to be slashed, while billions in prison spending remain largely untouched.

Clearly something isn’t working here – we aren’t fixing the problems that plague California’s criminal justice system. And, we aren’t improving public safety. The state is relying on incarceration to deal with mental health, drug abuse and economic and social problems that can never be solved simply by locking more people behind bars. The impact of the state’s overreliance on incarceration has been particularly devastating for communities of color. A higher proportion of African Americans are incarcerated in California today than were blacks in Apartheid South Africa. Latinos are now the largest group incarcerated in California’s prisons.

The decisions legislators are making right now about California’s budget will have dramatic and long-lasting impacts on public safety, local taxpayers and racial justice. Will counties focus on expanding incarceration at the expense of good public safety policy? Or will they tackle complex criminal justice challenges by implementing policies and practices based upon evidence rather than upon the politics of fear?

Think Outside the Box users are in the appropriations driver’s seat, making decisions with a click of the mouse. Is it best to hold tight to the “lock ‘em up” status quo, or to achieve significant savings by, for example, canceling jail construction projects ($727 million in annual savings)? Should we enact modest reforms to allow people who are accused of low level offenses to be released from jail while they await trial ($225 million in annual savings)? Or replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole ($184 million in annual savings)?

Users who trim criminal justice dollars can trade the savings for investments in child welfare, K-12 education, and CalGrants for college students without going into the red.

The exercise may be virtual but the tradeoffs are real.

Take the challenge now.

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