In summary

Reducing California’s corrections budget is the right strategy, and efforts should be made to overturn extreme sentencing laws.

By Jay Jordan, Special to CalMatters

Jay Jordan is the executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, jayjordan@safeandjust.org. The nonprofit authored and ran the campaign for Proposition 47 in 2014, co-authored Proposition 57 in 2016 and helped lead the campaign to defeat Proposition 20 in 2020. 

Over the past decade, Californians have repeatedly voted to reject over-incarceration as a failed pathway to safety. Proposition 47 and Proposition 57 reformed our state criminal justice system for the better. Yet too many in the law enforcement community would have you believe criminal justice reforms undermine public safety.

In reality, California has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing the number of people we needlessly imprison. Reinvesting those savings into communities by incentivizing prevention and treatment, and creating educational and economic opportunities, has made us safer. In fact, property and violent crime rates reached the lowest levels in recorded state history in 2019.

Incarceration fails to solve the most pressing issues facing our communities – from homelessness to economic and mental health challenges. Investing in prevention is a more effective way of achieving safety. Thanks to past reforms, this work has already started. In communities up and down the state, Proposition 47-funded programs have reduced recidivism by investing in services and supports that have helped people regain stability after contact with the justice system. On their own, these programs are still not enough.

In practically every county across the state last November, Californians resoundingly rejected the law enforcement-backed Proposition 20, which would have once again increased the number of people in prisons. It’s time for state leaders to respond to voters by advancing policies that make us safer instead of spending on ineffective prisons.

California must continue to be a leader in justice reform by addressing the residual impacts from decades of mass incarceration. State laws prevent people from moving forward constructively with their lives after completing their sentences, paying their debt and exiting the justice system. I know that firsthand. 

I’m a married father of two young children and the executive director of one of California’s leading justice reform organizations. But the worst thing I’ve done in my life means I won’t ever be able to accompany my sons on a school field trip. Years of public service and mentoring young people to avoid the justice system cannot overcome nearly 5,000 legal restrictions. For me, that means not being able to join my homeowners’ association even though it’s been a decade since I engaged in a robbery at age 18. For 8 million other Californians living with an old conviction record, these unnecessary restrictions are destabilizing obstacles to employment, housing, educational opportunities and more. They undermine, not enhance, public safety. 

California pours $50 billion every year into a justice system that fails to deliver. Reallocating just $1.5 billion toward crime prevention could treat 150,000 patients with severe mental health challenges, treat 150,000 patients struggling with addiction, house 50,000 people with complex physical and behavioral health needs, support crime survivors by creating 1,000 resume recovery centers and put 300,000 people on the path to employment through workforce development programs. 

That money could be saved by closing five prisons, according to a 2017 report by Californians for Safety and Justice. Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s leadership, California will close two in the next two years. Since 2010, we’ve spent more than $100 billion on prisons that don’t make our communities safer. We need to reduce that in favor of funding more effective, equitable, proven public safety strategies. 

The governor’s commitment to reducing California’s corrections budget is the right strategy. It must also be met with efforts to overturn extreme sentencing laws, which are costly and counterproductive. Sentence enhancements and determinate sentencing have significantly increased racial disparities, worsened economic instability and failed to make us safer. 

There is still much work to be done to reflect the shared values that keep our communities safe. After decades of failed policies and bloated budgets, the mandate from voters is clear. We must finally rectify the “tough on crime era” policies that disproportionately harmed Black and Brown people. We cannot hesitate. The time is now to create a truly safe and just California for all of us.

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