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Wake Up California: It’s Time to Get Real About Criminal Justice Reform

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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August 17, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

The “Prison Population and Budget Reduction Package” proposed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is like a drunk person walking home from a bar — it knows where it wants to go but oftentimes you find it stumbling off the sidewalk or turning down the wrong street.Since we believe budget cutting is no small feat and should be taken very seriously, especially in the wake of the prison riots in Chino and public safety needs, we’ve decided to pour the CDCR a strong cup of coffee and see if we can’t point the plan in a better direction.

The People’s Budget Fix, as we’ve named it, responds to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $1.2 billion in unallocated cuts to the corrections budget with a series of smart reforms to save the state billions of dollars, improve public safety, and advance long-needed adjustments in California’s Corrections system. Here’s an outline of some of the ways the CDCR’s budget proposal goes wrong and how we can do better.

Step 1: Reserve Prison for Serious Offenses

  • Convert MORE Petty Offenses to Misdemeanors: The CDCR identified only four out of 73 low-level, nonviolent “wobblers” (offenses that can be treated as felonies or misdemeanors) to convert to misdemeanor offenses.That’s a good start but is not enough to save the $700 million annually that the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts will come from converting more petty offenses.Nonviolent property crimes such as forgery, embezzlement, and vandalism should not result in expensive prison sentences
  • Keep Response to Petty Drug Offenses Local: California prisons are packed with low-level drug offenders, causing a significant drain on the state’s criminal justice system. People convicted of simple drug possession should be handled at the county level through community service, treatment, probation or some combination, saving $1 billion annually.
  • Respond to Youth Offenders Closer to Home: The Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has an astronomical recidivism rate of 72 percent and an annual budget of $436 million.We need to close these wasteful and ineffective youth prisons. Youth currently housed in DJJ prisons should be diverted to county custody and half the DJJ budget should be used to support effective local treatment programs, still allowing a net savings of more than $200 million annually.

Step 2: Focus Resources on Recidivism-Reduction

  • Maintain Effective Programs: The CDCR plans to eliminate $175 million in existing programs that aim to alleviate the state’s recidivism problem. Sending people from prison to the streets without any preparation or support is a recipe for failure. Programs such as substance abuse counseling, vocational training, and education are vital to the inmates’ ability to prepare for life on the outside — these programs should be protected, not cut.
  • Limit GPS Monitoring to High-Risk Offenders: The CDCR has proposed placing low-risk inmates, such as the medically infirm and elderly, in the community, but require that they wear GPS monitoring devices.While we support moving these inmates out of costly prison cells, GPS monitoring is unnecessary for these low-risk inmates and a waste of state money. Research has shown that GPS monitoring is costly and should be reserved for higher-risk offenders.
  • Enhance Plans for Risk-Based Parole Supervision: The CDCR is on the right track in saying that parole should be for violent and sex offenders and those considered high-risk. It makes sense to place moderate risk/nonviolent offenders on administrative parole.We need to go further, ending the administrative parole after one clean year. Just eliminating parole for drug possession would reduce the population by 25 percent and save $135 million annually.

Step 3: Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform

The People’s Budget Fix is indeed a sobering cup of coffee, opening our eyes to what smart and sensible criminal justice reforms can do to help save our state more money, improve public safety, and begin reforming our ailing prison system. But we can’t stop there.

The People’s Budget Fix also calls upon the governor and the California legislature to go beyond the immediate fixes identified above and strive for lasting budget reforms. We must delve deeper into the sobering realities of our criminal justices system and its failures. We need a balanced sentencing commission to take the politics out of the public safety debate and put the people back in. And we need to address two costly and ineffective areas of our criminal justice system: the death penalty and California’s Three Strikes law. Both of these policies cost that state billions of dollars in prison spending and court costs with no demonstrable returns for public safety. It is time for California to limit Three Strikes to violent offenses and replace the death penalty with effective alternatives that promote public safety.

On August 18, when the governor and the legislature return to Sacramento to begin discussions of the Corrections’ budget, we plan to be there to rally for the People’s Budget Fix and to meet with Legislatures to discuss our proposals.We hope our proposals help our political leaders see straight and get us all home safely.

The People’s Budget Fix is supported by Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Families Amend California’s Three Strikes, and the ACLU California affiliates.

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