After Proposition 47: Following the money

by Lizzie Buchen on November 25, 2014

Two weeks ago, California voters ushered in a landmark opportunity to reduce the state’s over-reliance on incarceration and to support some of the state’s most vulnerable populations. With the passage of Proposition 47, drug possession and petty theft-related offenses were reclassified as misdemeanors, with immediate implications for tens of thousands of Californians who have been convicted, or face being convicted, of these offenses. The initiative directs the money saved from sending thousands fewer people to prison every year (where annual costs now run at more than $60,000 per head) to the “Safe Neighborhood and Schools Fund,” which will support substance abuse and mental health treatment, truancy and drop-out prevention, and victim services. But while this combination of sentencing reform and crime prevention holds great promise for sustainably reducing incarceration, that outcome is far from guaranteed.

One of the key concerns around the ramifications of Proposition 47 is the newly created fund, which the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates will accrue $100 million to $300 million per year. Most of the money — 65 percent — will land with the Board of State and Community Corrections, which will then dole out grants to public agencies for mental health and substance abuse treatment for people involved in the justice system. These funds could potentially be used to support innovative, community-based treatment grounded in local needs and practices.

But as others have noted, a more troubling outcome is also possible: The averted prison costs could be returned to law enforcement, where they could contribute to jail expansion under the rationale of increasing mental health or substance abuse treatment options, or to programs that require surveillance and monitoring, which too often fast-track people back to prison or jail. The BSCC’s board, after all, is dominated by law enforcement, with the majority of slots held by current or former prison administrators, sheriffs, probation chiefs and police chiefs.

Advocates can actively engage in the BSCC’s decision-making process to shape how these resources are distributed. The agency will soon form an “Executive Steering Committee” to develop and administer the new funding program; advocates can influence the composition of the ESC by encouraging the appointment of grassroots leaders, service providers, and community residents, including those who have been incarcerated. All BSCC meetings, including board meetings and ESC meetings, are open to the public, and stakeholders can take the opportunity to demand investments in non-incarcerative, community-based programs.

Even if advocates succeed in directing the savings to community-based programs that do not expand correctional control, the initiative still leaves much to be desired. A particularly glaring weakness is the exclusion of people with prior convictions for certain serious offenses, such as homicide, and all registerable sex offenses. Prohibiting a subset people who have served their time from benefiting from this reform perpetuates the idea that some are less deserving of justice and humanity than others, and must suffer indefinitely for their past mistakes. Further, the initiative reclassifies only the most publicly palatable of felonies, leaving out a number of other non-violent, low-level offenses, such as drug sales.

Still, the initiative is a monumental opportunity for real and sustainable change. California is essentially at a crossroads: Proposition 47 could be an early step in the movement to dismantle the culture of punishment and incarceration and begin repairing the devastation that over-incarceration has wrought on low-income communities of color, or it could fortify and expand the state’s reliance on incarceration for social control, further bloating the prison system and eviscerating the state’s most vulnerable and destitute communities.

This piece first appeared in the blog

Filed under: Bay Area / California

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