Opinion: Is realignment an opportunity? If so, let’s not waste it on building costly jail beds.

Published by Capitol Weekly 11/23/11

November 17th’s “California’s Prison System – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” conference, organized by Capitol Weekly and the University of California, brought together experts, advocates, and law enforcement and highlighted the devastating impacts of the expansion of California’s prison system and consequent shift in state spending on education and social services. Conversations at the conference brought into sharper focus why California can’t risk falling into the familiar pattern of failed corrections policies as it realigns public safety.

It has been seven months since the Supreme Court ordered California to drastically reduce the state’s prison population. Beginning Oct. 1, responsibility for low-level prisoners was transferred from state prisons to counties. While politicians and pundits called the move unprecedented, many counties drafted ill-conceived plans that simply shift overcrowding from the state level prisons to already crowded county jails.

Only a few counties such as Glenn, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, have decided not to expand their jails. They have opted instead to use alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment, housing and restorative justice programs, with strong reentry services for those exiting county facilities. These counties are taking measures to reduce California’s unprecedented 70 percent recidivism rate head on, and push for solutions that support communities and reduce the state’s addiction to imprisonment.

On the other end of the spectrum, 34 of California’s 58 counties have indicated plans for expensive jail expansions to date, while leaving programs and services as an “unaffordable” afterthought. It is no wonder that these counties have higher imprisonment rates, and it appears they will continue to.

In 2007, the California Legislature passed AB 900, providing $7.7 billion in lease revenue bonds to build 53,000 more prison and jail cells, which will cost taxpayers billions per year to operate. AB 900 was amended earlier this year after the realignment bill passed, making it easier for counties to access this construction money, which almost all of the 34 counties are vying for. If realignment was sold to us as an opportunity for counties to do things better and an opportunity to save California money, then why is the only money being made available to counties tied to building more cages? Where are the state funds and policy incentives for counties to reduce the number of people cycling through the system?

Following 30 years of failed state corrections policy and out-of-control corrections spending is a risk our communities cannot afford to take. We need the Legislature and county elected officials to join Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) in calling for a statewide moratorium on prison and jail construction. This would rapidly incentivize common sense parole and sentencing reforms and meaningful alternatives to imprisonment. If realignment is to be successful, it must move away from financially and socially disastrous expansion plans and invest in supporting people returning to our counties. Otherwise, future cuts to education and human services are inevitable.

Just last week, California’s Legislative Analyst Office released grim news about the state’s financial health. The nonpartisan office projects a $13 billion deficit for 2012, and $3.7 billion revenue shortfall that could trigger at least $2 billion in service and program cuts. Hit hardest will be education from kindergartens to colleges, as well as in-home support, library, childcare and Medi-Cal services. The dire forecast also predicts a continued drop in wages and an unemployment rate of over 10 percent.

The LAO report guarantees that “tier 1” trigger cuts of $608 million will be enacted as early as January, just weeks after 25 counties were invited to apply for over $603 million in AB 900 Phase 2 funding to build more jail cells. Haven’t we Californians had enough of cutting funds for education and health care to pay for more prison and jail cells?
The LAO notes that next year’s planned

prison expansion will add $800 million per year to CDCR’s operating costs. In fact, they recommend that “given the likely magnitude of these eventual costs, as well as the significant reduction in the state’s inmate population resulting from the federal court ruling to reduce prison overcrowding, the Legislature may want to hold off from moving forward with some of the projects authorized under AB 900.” Let’s turn “some” to “all.”

Emily Harris is the Statewide Coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB).