Cut Corrections Now4 min read

Every part of the state budget has suffered big cuts in the last few years – with one perverse exception. The corrections budget, which increased from $4 billion in 2000 to over $9 billion in 2010, has escaped cutbacks entirely. The new governor says he’s prepared to make cuts – just not now. He’s proposed a flat prison budget in 2011. In contrast, he’s proposed an immediate $1 billion cut to the already devastated education system and a 21.5% reduction in health and human services.

California isn’t alone in having to make tough budget decisions this year. But it’s diverging from the national trend by preparing to cut everything except corrections.

Facing prison population pressures several years ago, Texas invested in diversion of people convicted of low-level offenses rather than to build a new prison. New York and New Jersey have both successfully reduced their prison populations through similar policies in recent years. Michigan has cut spending by 7% and closed 20 correctional facilities. In mid-December, Indiana’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission advised the state to shorten sentences for drug possession and some dealing offenses in order to safely reduce prison spending.

There are other states, too. South Carolina aims to cut its prison population by 8% by diverting from prison people convicted of drug dealing, burglary and check forgery. In Oklahoma, the new Republican Speaker of the House, Kris Steele, has promised to introduce plans to divert thousands of people convicted of petty offenses from prison.

To his credit, Governor Brown has proposed realigning petty offenses – that is, keeping people convicted of low-level offenses at the county level rather than in state prison. This is a major positive step. Prisons are for serious offenses, not for low-level, non-serious offenses or technical parole violations. California has terribly blurred that line over the years, resulting in dire prison overcrowding and sky-high recidivism.

Realignment is important, but it’s not enough. Without sentencing reform, it runs the risk of simply moving the state’s overcrowding and mass incarceration problems from the state level to the counties. Under the governor’s plan, tax extensions would increase funding to sheriffs and probation; meanwhile, the state corrections budget would remain the same as last year, handling fewer people at no savings to the state.

It is unacceptable to expand incarceration spending at the county level (and maintain incarceration spending at the state level), while gutting our state’s health and welfare services for the most vulnerable. Both for public safety and for cost concerns, it’s time for California to reduce criminal penalties for some low-level, non-serious offenses. It should start with petty drug possession.

Opinion polls consistently show strong public support for sentencing reform of drug laws. In 2000, 61% of voters approved Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, which for ten years has offered treatment instead of incarceration to most people convicted of simple drug possession for a first or second time. Unfortunately, even though that program diverted 36,000 people a year from incarceration and cut state costs by more than $2 billion, Sacramento completely defunded the program last year. This is likely to mean more people end up incarcerated at much higher cost to taxpayers.

California appears to be moving backward. Despite Prop 36’s significant impact on reducing the prison population, there are still 9,000 people in a California prison for drug possession. Of these, 6,500 have never been convicted of a serious or violent offense. Yet they are each sentenced to 18 months to 3 years in state prison – and spend the rest of their lives battling to overcome the exclusions and barriers that all people with a felony conviction face.

A felony conviction is a life-long punishment. People with a felony conviction, no matter for what offense or how long ago it was committed, have severely limited employment and housing options and face significantly diminished life-time earnings. Making it difficult for people to become gainfully employed is counter-productive and destabilizing – and therefore bad for public safety.

By making drug possession a misdemeanor, the state would safely cut prison spending by $450 million per year – and eliminate the barriers to success that currently follow a felony conviction. If it also changed penalties for people convicted of drug possession for sale (most of which involve selling to support one’s own habits or to share with friends), the state would reduce prison costs by another $500 million annually. Some of that savings could go to reducing the budget deficit; some could go toward restoring the state’s drug treatment system.

Cutting back on wasteful corrections spending is essential to protecting our kids and families from even further deep cuts to education, health care and welfare. This can only be accomplished with sentencing reform. California needs to take a lesson from other states. Safety starts at home, 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, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs and the proponent of Proposition 36 in 2000.