By Anna Challet, New America Media
California’s Proposition 47 stands to save the state millions of dollars due to reductions in jail and prison populations. The bulk of the savings are to be directed to mental health and substance abuse treatment, but some advocates don’t want law enforcement to be able to access funds for programs run in jails.
Prop. 47 passed in 2014, and reclassifies a small set of non-violent felonies as misdemeanors (crimes like simple drug possession, petty theft, and writing bad checks). It also applies retroactively, so people who are currently incarcerated can apply for resentencing.
Prop. 47’s implementation has helped to decrease California’s incarcerated population by more than 8,000 individuals, according to Governor Brown’s 2016-2017 budget proposal. A report by the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project estimates that the state savings due to reduced sentencing should be more than $90 million a year (though the state’s Department of Finance is estimating the first year’s savings at closer to $30 million, according to Brown’s proposed budget).
The savings are set to go to the Department of Education, victim compensation, and the largest chunk – 65 percent – to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs to decrease recidivism. Some groups are concerned about what kinds of treatment programs that funding will support.
Of course, people who are currently in detention need access to quality mental health care. Last year an Urban Institute study reported that more than half of state prisoners and nearly a third of jail inmates have a mental health problem. But some advocates worry that funds could end up being used to supplement corrections budgets, as opposed to supporting community-based programs that help people in reentry and prevent people from becoming incarcerated.
“The worry is that Prop 47 funds will be used for mental health treatment that is run by law enforcement,” says Lizzie Buchen, the statewide advocacy coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). “Jails are not a place where people can heal. They can be very traumatic for people with mental health issues.”
For Buchen, at issue is who’s going to be in charge of allocating the savings. “The reason we’re so concerned is that all of those funds are going through the Board of State and Community Corrections,” says Buchen. “That is an agency that we’re most familiar with because they’ve spent $2.2 billion building jails over the past 4 years.”
John Jones, a local organizer at the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, agrees with Buchen’s concerns. Jones is himself formerly incarcerated, as recently as earlier last year.
“Once the handcuffs are on, you’re no longer a human being. Every individual who meets you, they’re no longer meeting with a human, a father, a son, a community member. You become a number. You’re just an inmate,” he says. “Our penal system and our county jails are not set up for mental health.”
The Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), an independent agency that regulates the state’s criminal justice system and whose board members are appointed by the governor, is tasked with developing a temporary executive steering committee, which will make the funding recommendations.
Two members of the board have been appointed to be chairs of the committee – Scott Budnick, the founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez. Buchen allows that this is “encouraging” because Budnick and Perez are not themselves members of law enforcement.
The BSCC and the committee chairs will select the rest of the executive steering committee, which will be announced in April. That committee will then hold a series of public hearings and create the guidelines for the grant proposal process that will determine where the funding will go. The proposal process is open to public agencies, including law enforcement agencies like sheriff’s departments.
“We’re trying to advocate for the executive steering committee to set the guidelines such that law enforcement is not eligible for these funds,” says Buchen. “We think that it’s really important that these savings go into the community and into community-based treatment programs and community-based services that can more effectively serve the population they want to serve.”
John Bauters, the policy director at Californians for Safety and Justice, says that advocates’ concerns are “more than legitimate” based on the way funds have been directed in the past. “It’s not a falsehood to say that the fear [about Prop 47 funds] could be realized,” he says.
But Bauters points to AB 1056 – the Second Chance Program for Community Re-entry, which was signed into law in October – as a reason for confidence that the process will prioritize programs based in communities. AB 1056 functions as a “policy overlay onto the ballot language” of Prop 47, according to Bauters, giving additional direction to how the savings meant for mental health and substance abuse treatment should be distributed as a way of “redirect[ing] a history of misspending.”
AB 1056 holds that priority must be given to applicants that partner with community-based organizations, and among other things prioritize projects that also provide services like housing assistance and job skills training. The effect, Bauters says, should be to “make money more available to community-based providers delivering the types of treatment that are necessary for people in re-entry, but also as a prevention matter for people who might otherwise engage in criminal behavior because they need mental health or substance abuse treatment intervention.”
Bauters says the focus needs to be on getting prepared for the grant process itself. “We need our community-based partners that want to access this money for the purpose of providing these services to be in discussions now with their county or with their appropriate public agency partner,” he says.
“I think advocates are right to be worried,” he says. “But they also need to be starting to focus their time on getting together who wants to apply for this money, who wants to deliver these services – who we are going to partner with to get this done.”