Gov. Jerry Brown wants to cut state prison spending next fiscal year for the first time in nearly a decade, a departure from the goals of recent administrations, which consistently increased corrections spending and pushed for prison expansion.
Brown’s budget would save California $1.1 billion on housing inmates and hundreds of millions more by allowing the state to halt some prison construction – savings largely due to his administration’s recent overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.
General fund spending on prisons nearly doubled under Brown’s Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, from $5.2 billion in 2004 to $9.5 billion in 2011, when Brown, a Democrat, took office. The increase in spending was largely caused by an exploding inmate population and a court order to improve medical care in prisons.
The general fund is backed by statewide taxes and pays for most of the government’s basic programs, including schools, police, welfare services and other programs. A cut in prison spending makes more dollars available for other programs.
“We’re knocking it down, and we’ll knock it down further,” Brown said Friday of the prison budget. “A lot of the problems come from the fact that they built (too many) prisons in 20 years – it was too fast, they didn’t know what they were doing, and now we have to clean up that mess. We made good progress the first year.”
$1 billion savings
Under Brown’s spending proposal, released Jan. 5, general fund spending on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation would decline from this year’s budget of $9.8 billion to $8.7 billion, largely because the state prison population has fallen nearly 1,000 a week since Oct. 1, when the state shifted responsibility for lower level offenders to county law enforcement, a policy known as realignment.
“I don’t think there’s any question we’ve turned a corner here … just by the fact that we are significantly reducing the prison population,” said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, a nonprofit that conducts policy analysis on criminal justice issues.
But Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a former parole board chairman who has been a vocal critic of realignment, predicted the savings would not last, particularly without more investment in rehabilitative services for criminals. He said that counties will ultimately have to raise local taxes to fully pay for realignment, eliminating any savings for taxpayers.
“It’s frankly not a long-run savings for the state,” said Nielsen, of Gerber (Tehama County). “Corrections spending will go down a little and then creep back up.”
Just one year ago, California was grappling with a court order to reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates and was moving forward with 13 construction projects to expand prison capacity.
Now, the prison population is at 130,000, a decrease of 11,000 in six months. State officials met the first benchmark set by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce the prison population and say they are on track to meet the next one as well, as thousands of offenders that would have flowed into the overcrowded system are staying in county jails instead and being supervised by local probation officials rather than state parole officers.
In addition to halting construction projects, Brown next year wants to begin phasing out the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice and place the state’s most violent youth offenders in county facilities. And after years of cuts to rehabilitation programs in prisons, Brown wants lawmakers to restore about $100 million in funding for drug treatment, education and other services.
The governor’s budget proposal, like most criminal justice issues, has prompted mixed reactions.
Worries over funding
Republican critics of the governor’s realignment plan continue to warn that the change will have dire public safety consequences, while county law enforcement officers are still worried about whether realignment funding – $400 million this year and nearly $860 million next year – will be consistent or adequate to meet their expanded responsibilities.
County officials and juvenile justice experts are glad that the governor has proposed putting off severe budget cuts to the juvenile justice system this fiscal year, but they worry about the ability of counties to handle the population in the future.
Advocates who oppose prison spending are heartened by Brown’s decision to scrap several construction projects, but say the governor isn’t going far enough. Under Brown’s proposal, the state would stop the conversion of two former juvenile facilities into adult prisons, which together would have cost nearly $500 million to build. Officials expect to save about $250 million a year in debt service on bonds by canceling those projects.
“For us it’s a mixed bag,” said Emily Harris of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition made up of liberal groups that advocate for less prison spending. “They are canceling two (prison) expansion projects, and we see that as an important first step toward addressing the bloated corrections budget. … And I think it’s exciting and important that he wants to close the Division of Juvenile Justice.”
She also praised a nearly $50 million investment in grants for county probation departments that are successful in reducing recidivism among offenders.
The proposal to shutter the Division of Juvenile Justice is also significant, said experts in the field. The number of youth offenders in the state system has declined from a high of 10,000 in 1996 to its current 1,100. Now, counties handle most juvenile offenders while the state is charged with overseeing only the most violent juveniles.
Last month, Brown caused alarm among counties and juvenile justice experts when he instituted a $72 million budget cut that would have forced counties to either take back all of their youth offenders or pay the state $125,000 a year to house them.
After hearing the concern, the governor is now proposing to “delay collection” of those payments and work to phase out the Division of Juvenile Justice entirely. Under his proposal, counties would get $10 million to prepare for that change, and, starting next January, youth offenders would no longer be placed in the state system. Those currently in the system would serve out their sentences.
County officials and juvenile experts said they are not ready to support the governor’s plan without more details but are encouraged that he is willing to work with them on developing a way to handle the difficult population.
“We interpret it as a good faith effort on the part of the administration to work with us to mitigate our concerns,” said Elizabeth Howard Espinosa, who handles realignment issues for the California State Association of Counties. “What we saw in the governor’s budget is a willingness to say, look, DJJ is going to be phased out at some point, and let’s use this as an opportunity to plan and develop some programs.”
Macallair, the criminal justice expert, said that all of these changes would not have occurred without the U.S. Supreme Court stepping in but credited Brown for “taking the steps he needs to take.”
The governor agreed and said more work is ahead.
“We wouldn’t even be here if the Supreme Court hadn’t issued a definitive order,” Brown said. “It was a big nudge. We still have district attorneys and Republican legislators that get hysterical. … But we have created some stability, we are reducing the head count, we are saving money, and I believe we can be more effective in terms of helping people re-enter society and live more productive lives, instead of being on a merry-go-round of prisons the way it’s been the last 30 years.”
E-mail Marisa Lagos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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