PG&E power lines in the East Bay, October 2019. (Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group.)

In summary

County jails see spike in mental illness cases. Turning PG&E into a public utility comes with a hefty price tag. State aims to fix bottle-recycling program.

Good morning, California.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport — it requires the active participation of all its citizens.”—Assemblyman Marc Levine, a San Rafael Democrat, on his proposal to require registered voters to return their ballots.

  • Voters could send back blanks.

Mental illness in jails

Source: California Health Policy Strategies, LLC

County jails experienced a 42% increase in the number of inmates with an open mental health case between 2009 and 2019, the consulting firm, California Health Policy Strategies, reports

That period tracks California’s criminal justice realignment which reduced state prison population by 50,000 inmates and shifted lower level criminals to county jails. 

The numbers: 

  • In 2009, jails held 80,000 inmates and averaged 15,500 inmates with open mental health cases, or 19%. 
  • In 2019, jails held 72,000 inmates and had 22,000 open mental health cases, or 30%.

Citing the rise in mentally ill inmates, the report says: 

  • “This finding could reflect a trend toward the increased incarceration of seriously mentally ill individuals.”

David Panush, the firm’s founder, worked 30 years on health policy for the Legislature. He noted that many inmates were homeless when they were arrested, and will be homeless when they are released.

  • “We’re cycling people from the street in and out of jail, and they’re not getting better.”

The problem is worse in some counties:

  • In San Diego County, 45% of inmates have open mental health cases.
  • In San Francisco County, 42% have open cases.
  • In Kern County, 86% of jail inmates were on psychotropic meds. 
  • In Santa Clara County, 88% were on such medication.
  • In Los Angeles County, 35% receive psychotropic medications.

The numbers are based on counties’ reports filed with the Board of State and Community Corrections. Marin, Sacramento, Riverside, San Joaquin and San Diego counties failed to file complete reports.

A $60 billion question

Gov. Newsom tours Kincade Fire, 2019. (Photo, Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group.)

Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and others are saying they’d like to dramatically reshape PG&E as it emerges from bankruptcy. 

But can they, and what would the utility that serves 16 million Californians look like as a publicly owned provider of electricity?

CalMatters’ Judy Lin offers some answers.

The price tag: $60 billion, steep for a state with a $222 billion budget.


  • Wiener’s Senate Bill SB 917 calls for a state power authority with the option to spin off local municipal utilities. 
  • Liccardo envisions a customer-owned electric cooperative. 
  • Assemblyman Marc Levine has a bill to appoint a public administrator.

S. David Freeman served as head of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which broke away from PG&E 75 years ago, and helped the state stabilize energy markets in the energy crisis of 2000-2001. His solution entails seizing all the poles and wires and treating them as a public good:

  • “I think we’ve reached a fundamental tipping point. I think we need to be thinking of the electric delivery system as perhaps even more important than our highways.”

To read Lin’s explainer, please click here.

Recycling legislation redo

A recycling facility in San Jose. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters.)

Even representatives of special interests who helped kill legislation aimed at overhauling beverage bottle recycling say the state needs to fix its broken system, Rachel Becker reports

The question: How.

Californians recycled about 84% of their beverage bottles in the first half of 2019, according to CalRecycle. But the state’s bottle recyclers have struggled to stay afloat, citing high operating costs and insufficient payments from the state

Dead: Fremont Democratic Sen. Bob Wieckowski’s Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020, which would have required beverage distributors to design a new recycling program — and to help pay for it themselves. Facing opposition from the wine industry, beer distributors, and bottle recyclers, the bill failed a critical juncture last week. 

Cooking: Democratic Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego have been leading an effort to reduce 75% of the waste from single use packaging and food service items (including bottles, starting in 2026) by 2030. The bills stalled in September, but the authors are working to revive them. 

Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa voted against Wieckowski’s bill — but has an idea of his own to make beverage producers responsible for a bottle recycling program. What “producer” means, however, is still in the works.

To read Becker’s report, please click here.

Why endorsements matter

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs with Michael Bloomberg, in Sacramento on Tuesday.

In the race to win as many big name endorsements in California before the March 3 primary, few presidential contenders are quite as hungry as Mike Bloomberg.

But in the presidential campaign, do endorsements even matter? CalMatters’ Ben Christopher tries to answer that question

The short answer: Maybe, but probably not the way you think they might.

Endorsements are about getting a little media buzz and tapping into the endorser’s network of volunteers and donors, though Bloomberg clearly does not need funders.

To read Christopher’s story, please click here.

Take a number: 172,099

UC Berkeley, 2019. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters.)

Freshman applications to University of California fell for the second year running, to 172,099 in 2019, a 5.4% decline since 2018, the University of California reports

Five of nine undergraduate campuses saw applications dip, UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced. 

  • Transfer students aiming to enroll grew by 4.8%.
  • The L.A. Times: Experts said the decline in first-year applicants may signal a reality check among high school students who are daunted by the growing competition and cost of a UC freshman seat and are instead opting for a more affordable community college pathway. 

Demographics: A decline in the number of college-age students has hit Northeastern states. That will peak in California inl about 2025, The Times reports.

Commentary at CalMatters

Susanna Cooper and Michal Kurlaender, UC Davis: Allowing high school students to take college-level courses while they are still in high school is good for students, good for high schools, and good for community colleges, which are the primary vehicle for dual enrollment. But 1,260 high schools in California have zero students who are enrolled in college courses. 

Dan Walters, CalMatters: Two recent critiques of the state’s efforts to raise academic achievement by disadvantaged students indicate that reality is beginning to rear its ugly head.


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Dan Morain joined CalMatters in March 2018. He is the former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Morain also spent 27 years at The Los Angeles Times, and has covered the Capitol since 1992.