With Prop. 47 Funds, Communities Can Move from Punishment to Prevention

Prop 47 Funds

Up from incarceration: Susan Burton, left, with some of the people she has helped through her organization, A New Way of Life.

Earlier this month, California reached an important milestone in its fight against mass incarceration: $103 million was awarded to local public agencies to expand mental health, addiction treatment and support services for those returning home from prison.

These programs will soon be available thanks to Proposition 47, which voters approved in 2014 to bring common sense back to the justice system. California stopped sending people to state prison for low-level offenses like drug possession, shoplifting and writing bad checks.

The law mandated that savings from reduced incarceration be invested in health and prevention. Earlier this month, California made its down payment. Of the $103 million approved, more than $35 million will be coming to the Los Angeles County area.

If the kinds of health services funded by Prop. 47 savings were available in South L.A. in the 1990s, I could have avoided years of pain and the revolving door of prison.

If the kinds of health services funded by Prop. 47 savings were available in South L.A. in the 1990s, I could have avoided years of pain and the revolving door of prison.

In 1981 my 5-year-old son was struck and killed by a van driven by an off-duty police officer. The officer never apologized for the death of my son. I was devastated and spiraled into depression.

With no counseling or support services available to me, I began to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. I was in and out of the criminal justice system. I was never offered a helping hand, just a locked cell.

When I was released for the sixth time in 1996, a prison guard told me, “We got your bed waiting for you. See you soon.”

But that prison guard was wrong. I got lucky and entered a rehabilitation program in Santa Monica that provided me with the drug treatment, therapy and supportive environment I needed to get my life back on track and find my purpose. I took what I learned back to South L.A. and opened A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

A New Way of Life provides housing and support to formerly incarcerated women to help them successfully re-enter the community, reunite with their families, and heal from the trauma and pain that led them down a negative path.

Many women experience severe trauma before they even enter a jail cell, and most leave in worse condition. More than 60 percent of women in jail report that they were sexually assaulted before turning 18, and more than 32 percent report symptoms of serious psychological distress while incarcerated.

Criminalizing those symptoms of hurt and pain is the real criminal act. Since its founding, A New Way of Life has helped more than 1,000 women and their children reintegrate into society following incarceration.

Understanding how to heal from the trauma of abuse and addiction that so many incarcerated people have survived is essential to creating safer communities, and the Prop. 47 grants are a good start. But we can’t stop there.

Every city and county should study its budget and look for ways to invest more in mental health, addiction treatment and other important services, including programs specifically focused on helping women heal from trauma. These services will cost a lot less than the $75,000 a year we spend on each state prison inmate.

susan burtonAs voters understood in approving Prop. 47, real community safety is centered on prevention, not punishment. Now is the time to invest our money in our communities and not in cages.

Susan Burton
Daily News

About Susan Burton

Susan Burton is the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Program.

Susan Burton and her story of perseverance in overcoming overwhelming odds is an inspiration to women across the United States, particularly formerly incarcerated women and women in recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs. After cycling in an out of the criminal justice system for nearly fifteen years, Susan gained freedom and sobriety and founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project in 1998.

She opened her doors to other women returning home from prisons and jails, offering shelter, safety, leadership, and support to those seeking to rebuild their lives. Dedicating her life to helping other women break the cycle of incarceration, homelessness, addiction and despair, Susan became a recognized leader in the criminal justice reform and reentry rights movements.