In 2014 when California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 47 — the ballot initiative calling for the release of non-violent drug offenders from state prisons — they were told more than $100 million would be available for rehabilitation services to prevent recidivism.
Officials in Sacramento estimated state savings from the thousands of newly released inmates would provide the largess for programs aimed at behavioral health, substance abuse, education and crime victims.
But now as Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature are crafting the first fund for such programs, the proposed amount is drastically less — maybe $50 million, depending how much remains in the 2016-17 budget bill to be signed into law by the end of the month.
This has outraged initiative advocates, who say it makes no sense to undercut the anti-recidivism programs that are a fundamental component to helping former inmates lead productive lives.
The current working number is an substantial under-estimation of the state’s cost savings, showing government representatives are not in step with the electorate, say officials from Californians for Safety and Justice in Oakland, which pushed for the initiative.
“The voters have spoken,” said Patricia Guerra, a justice policy coordinator for the Community Coalition, an advocacy organization in south Los Angeles, noting 60 percent approved the initiative.
“The only way to reduce the prison population and stop the recycling of mass incarceration is to invest in local community programs.”
Indeed, in February when there was a better understanding of the measure’s impact, the state savings was pegged at $130 million the first year, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Legislature’s non-partisan fiscal/policy advisor.
For Orange County, less money available means its chances of winning funds for local programs are worse — as counties will compete for funds from a pool, with that process starting in August and awards early next year.
This is because interviews show Orange County has been slow to prepare for the competition, and has no local representative on state panels developing the new system.
A Brewing Budget Battle
Within the next week, officials in Sacramento say the Legislature is expected to hash out the final budget, which then is to go to the governor by June 15. He then can pare items before signing the budget package of about $170 billion.
“We are hoping for grass roots support with behind-the- scenes lobbying” to increase the money for services, said a proposition advocate.
But that bet may be a long shot.
Sensitivities about the initiative are such that several legislators shepherding the measure declined repeated requests for information. Even some advocacy groups declined to comment on the fight for more money.
An indication of the tensions was a recent legislative scrum over extending the initiative’s requirement that court petitions to reduce certain felonies to misdemeanors must be filed by November 2017.
Earlier this year, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, introduced a bill eliminating any sunset clause for seeking such conviction reductions — given there are an estimated million people statewide who could benefit, but not enough time for court proceedings.
But this didn’t sit well with the pro-incarceration forces, officials say, so the bill moving through the Legislature now extends the petition deadline to 2022.
After recent legislative deliberations on rehabilitation services, the working proposal called for about $40 million in the first year. Then a week ago, the state Assembly added $10 million, as a one-time boost, bringing the total to $50 million.
This $10 million was harvested for redistribution after the Legislature recently eliminated $250 million the governor had proposed for building new jails — yet another sign of the move away from incarceration to anti-recidivism programs.
But this addition — put forward by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco — is now up for debate in the Legislature’s conference committee over the entire budget.
A Ting spokesman said a decision is expected in the next week. And then the governor could still cut line items.
Debating the Number of Prisoners Released
An indication of the political complexity is shown by the issue of determining how many inmates under Prop. 47 were released from state prisons in 2015 — the base year the proposition cites for computing savings. [In the years thereafter, allotments are to be increased substantially.]
After considerable debate, Brown administration officials recently agreed 5,250 inmates were released from state prison in 2015 under Prop 47. [For the first nine months of the year, a Stanford report showed about 175 were from Orange County convictions.]
When the proposition went before voters, the state was under federal fire for gross prison overcrowding — which prompted California to ship inmates out of state to contract facilities, many operated as for-profit institutions.
State officials say the typical direct annual cost to house a California inmate out of state was $30,000. This contrasts sharply with the direct cost of $9,000 to keep an inmate in a California prison.
Such costs were used to compute the range of Prop. 47 cost savings, officials say, particularly by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
The legislative analysts assumed that for every California prisoner released under Prop. 47 the savings could be as high as $30,000 per year, officials said.
This is because for every inmate released, the state could reduce an inmate in a more expensive contract facility — since such an inmate then could be moved into a cheaper California prison bed.
Such scenarios prompted the Legislative Analyst’s Office before the election to predict Prop. 47 would produce: “A net state criminal justice savings in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”
It is this analysis that prompted independent groups, like the California Budget & Policy Center in Sacramento, to infer proposition savings would be in an often-quoted $100 million to $200 million range.
But a legislative aide noted that the proposition’s language included a loophole for the governor — it stated that the savings would be computed by the state Department of Finance.
This was seen as allowing the finance department to use “whatever number they wanted,” said the veteran aide.
Proposition advocates wouldn’t comment directly on how the savings-determination provision was included, but interviews indicated the decision was “political” — likely at the request of Brown to win his endorsement of the initiative.
Earlier this year, the finance department claimed a higher cost savings estimate was no longer valid because of court-ordered and/or realignment inmate releases.
But whatever the number, no one questions there is enormous need in communities for the programs.
In fact, the total number of inmates released from state prisons by Prop. 47 is at least 1,000 more than the 5,250 in 2015, according to court records from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Sacramento.
These other inmates were released from Nov. 5 to Dec. 31 in 2014, state records say — as prisoners rushed to contact their attorneys [typically at county public defender offices] to file petitions for freedom.
And, of course, there are many others who may benefit from the new rehabilitation programs.
The Board of State and Community Corrections [BSCC] in Sacramento is to distribute 65 percent of the state savings to county programs for behavior health and substance abuse. The remaining 35 percent will go to education and victim services.
After the town halls, the BSCC established a panel of officials from around the state — including the formerly incarcerated, but no one from Orange County — to help devise a request for proposals for the competitive grants from applying counties.
Under the current budget proposal, the competitive pool now would be $25.6 million, up from nearly $20 million. And if the added $10 million stays in the budget, the pool would increase by $6.5 million, officials say.
BSCC officials say they await a final budget to determine what amount to plug in for the competitive pool.
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.