Advocates Call for Permanent Cuts to Prisons Through Sentencing Reform
Poll Finds That California Voters Believe “Too Many People in Prisons” and Support for Lessening Penalties for Drug Possession
SACRAMENTO – In his latest proposal to the Legislature, reportedly already embraced by Legislative Democratic leadership and poised for passage by majority vote, Governor Jerry Brown proposes guaranteed funding to local governments for building jail capacity and hiring sheriffs deputies and probation officers to supervise low-level, nonviolent offenders at the county level.
To offset this choice, the Governor proposes more cuts to health, education and social services. “In this year’s budget, Governor Brown prison spending reaches a record high, and he proposes increased spending on local lock-ups as well, while cutting schools, parks, and healthcare that keep families whole and safe,” said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs for Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, “California voters collective call to stop locking up drug users and shoplifters, and to invest the savings into health and education appears to have fallen on deaf ears yet again.”
The new budget proposal to address $9 billion in red ink makes no cuts to prisons. It does defer $2.8 billion in payments to K-12 schools and community colleges, makes an additional $450 million cut to higher education, and cuts $150 million from courts, over and above cuts taken earlier this year.
Brown’s law enforcement and corrections budget, first proposed in January and sustained through the new budget proposal is supported by law enforcement leadership, and would require local jails and probation departments to supervise low level offenders, including persons convicted of minor property crimes and drug offenses. The Governor’s budget increases spending on local and state lock-ups this year and next, but the administration projects that state prison spending will drop by $2 billion dollars a year by 2014, and that the total prison population will drop by 30,000.
“A budget is a statement of priorities,” said Theshia Naidoo, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Governor’s budget prioritizes prison guards over school children, jails over parks, and incarceration over community development. This is merely a continuation of the same rigid and failed priorities we have seen from previous administrations. What we need are bold steps to solve the budget crisis. Sentencing reforms, particularly for low-level drug offenses, are common-sense spending cuts, and they more accurately reflect the priorities of Californians.”
Brown had previously called to fund prisoner “realignment” through extensions of existing taxes due to expire. His new proposal involves a maneuver intended to avoid the necessity of garnering Republican votes: a tax “swap.” The swap guarantees a portion of sales tax revenue to the county governments for jails, public safety and other programs, even though overall sales taxes will decline by one cent on the dollar on July 1st.
According to preliminary media reports, Brown’s new budget optimistically assumes an additional $4 billion dollars in tax revenue above prior assumptions. If the money doesn’t materialize, then cuts will be triggered. The so-called “trigger,” mechanism also prioritizes lock-up spending over other spending. According to a report on SacBee.com, more than half of the triggered cuts would come from schools and colleges, and less than one-half of one percent would come out of state prisons ($100 million out of $4 billion).
“California spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year locking people up for minor offenses when they pose no threat to public safety,” said Allen Hopper, an attorney with the ACLU of California. “To help balance the budget, we need to balance our priorities. We can save money and keep our communities safe by reserving felony sentences for serious crimes.”
According to a poll by Lake Research in March, a whopping 72% of California voters support reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of illegal drugs to a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year behind bars. Commissioned by the ACLU of Northern California, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the March survey of 800 general election voters found that solid majorities of Democrats (79%), Independents (72%), and Republicans (66%) from every part of the state overwhelmingly support the change. In fact, 41% of people surveyed say they would be more likely to support a candidate who reduced the penalty, compared to just 15% who say they’d be less likely. Poll results and analysis are online.
“A felony conviction is a life-long sentence that should not be applied to low-level offenses,” said Kris Lev-Twombly of Ella Baker Center, “No matter how old the conviction, people with a felony on their record will face significantly diminished employment opportunities and much lower lifetime earnings. They may also be prohibited from accessing student loans and public assistance. This works against individual, family and community wellbeing and public safety.”