Where we spend our money says a lot about our priorities. That’s why California’s legislature must reject the governor’s plan to spend $250 million more taxpayer dollars to build new jails. Since 2007 alone, the state has spent $2.2 billion on jail construction. That’s quite enough — especially when we know that investing more in prevention and treatment is far more affordable and effective at breaking the cycle of incarceration.
The quarter of a billion dollars proposed in this year’s budget should instead be invested in programs to reduce unnecessary incarceration — which disproportionately impacts people of color — and enhance public safety. We should be investing in cultivating healthy, safe and vibrant communities, not in locking more people up.
We know that spending hundreds of millions more in jail construction doesn’t reflect the values of Californians. When over 60% of voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014, they sent a strong message that Californians are done with pouring good money after bad on a system that incarcerates too many people (too many of whom are people of color) for too long and without commensurate positive impact on public safety. Instead of dumping more money into jails, voters in 2014 demanded increased investment in more worthwhile and cost-effective community-based prevention. Indeed, we now know that incarceration actually increases the chances that a person will be convicted of a crime in the future. It should therefore be used sparingly
The original rationale for building more jails was that our county jails were overcrowded. That’s no longer true. When Prop 47 changed several low-level drug and theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, jail overcrowding eased up significantly. Early releases because of overcrowding conditions plummeted. Even California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office determined that the governor failed to make the case for spending more on jail construction.
We can safely reduce the jail population even further by reforming the state’s broken bail system. As of June 2015, a shocking 62% of the people in California’s county jails were there not because they’d been convicted of a crime, but because they were awaiting the outcome of their case. Many of them were stuck because they couldn’t afford to pay bail. We need to explore alternatives to this unfair system, not continuing the lock-‘em-up approach. No one’s freedom should be based on the amount of money they have in their bank accounts.
- Invest in giving all Californians equal access to justice: Direct resources to the Equal Access Fund (EAF), which supports nonprofit legal aid organizations to assist people returning to our communities to address reentry problems, remove old criminal convictions, and to help people find jobs, stable housing and mental services.
- Fund reviews of unconstitutional sentences: Many people serving life sentences in California prisons were unconstitutionally sentenced as juveniles. Although they have a right to a new sentencing hearing, almost none have access to an attorney to help get their case reviewed. Black youth are serving this sentence at a rate that is 18 times higher than the rate for white youth, and Latino youth are sentenced to life without parole five times more than white youth.
- Support public defenders to properly advise immigrant clients: We should give public defenders the resources they need to adequately advise immigrant clients about possible immigration consequences when they’re charged in a criminal case. Deportation of a family member can have devastating emotional, psychological, and financial consequences on California families. We need to prevent this from happening, because immigrants are an integral part of California’s diverse social fabric.
The Legislature must reject the governor’s proposal to invest $250 million more in jail construction. It’s unnecessary, out of sync with California’s values, and wastes funds that could be better invested elsewhere.
If you’d like to help, call your Senator and Assemblymember and let them know what you think about the governor’s plan to prioritize jails over communities. You can find your representatives here. A safe and just California deserves better!
Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director, ACLU of California