Preserve Safety Net, Cut Corrections


Posted on 11 June 2010

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By Margaret Dooley-Sammuli
Drug Policy Alliance

Because of California's continuing budget crises, the question is no longer will we cut the corrections’ budget but how. Every dollar spent on big prisons this year will be taken from children's health care, family welfare, students' education, and services to our elderly and infirm. 

We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past in terms of shredding the education and social safety net or investing billions in incarceration policies that cycle men and women in-and-out of violent, overcrowded prisons and back to our communities. The decisions made now will have real and lasting consequences for the health and safety of California communities for decades.

Sacramento must resist the temptation to simply shift the state’s prison crisis to the counties. Instead, it should adopt modest reforms that will reduce over-incarceration of both adults and young people for non-violent offenses, promote rehabilitation, and preserve prison resources for responding to serious crimes.

California can achieve over $550 million in annual savings and promote public safety by implementing the following sensible reforms:

Move incarceration for low-level offenses to the counties, while also reducing the impact on the counties by limiting lengthy sentences:

  • Adjust the dollar threshold for felony property theft—not changed since 1982;
  • Make certain low-level drug and property crimes into misdemeanors; and
  • Make possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor. 

Eliminate unnecessary costs at the CDCR without adding any additional burden to the counties:

  • Eliminate “time adds” which unnecessarily extend the sentences of youth; and
  • Replace the costly and dysfunctional death penalty with permanent imprisonment.

Provide judges more flexibility in sentencing, to safely reduce the costs of handling low-level offenses at the county level:

  • Eliminate probation ineligibility for some low-level drug and property crimes; and
  • Eliminate mandatory minimum jail sentences for some low-level misdemeanors.

In addition, to keep crime on the decline in California, we must also restore funding for alternatives to incarceration and rehabilitation by creating a funding system for counties that provides effective incentives to reduce the number of people in custody at all levels of the system, rather than paying the counties to keep more people locked up. Federal Byrne Grant funds are available to be used to support these critically underfunded crime-prevention programs.

California can protect our kids, families, and elderly from deep cuts to education, welfare and health services, by making smart cuts in the exorbitant spending on one of the biggest prison population per capita in the world. 

Safety starts at home, when families are whole and healthy, when kids are in schools, and when parents have opportunities for employment and higher education. 

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Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is Deputy State Director, Southern California, for the Drug Policy Alliance, a Budget Justice partner with the ACLU of Northern California and the Ella Baker Center.

Who could argue with her recommendations?

California’s over dependence on incarceration has been nothing more than a knee jerk reaction to violent crime. Our legislature tripped over each other to add new felony laws and longer sentences for non violent petty crimes in the process. It did not make us safer or reduce violent crime, but it did add billions to the corrections budget targeting the poor, the addicted and the mentally ill. Mandatory sentencing laws such as Three Strikes have added 25% to our prison population with double the time and life sentences for drug users, shoplifters and other petty crimes. This complete lack of common sense was never the intent of the voters of this state and the costs could not have been imagined. It is time the legislature show the guts and political will to tackle these issues and correct the misuse and abuse of these costly and poorly conceived policies.