The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been called a lot of things, but never a leader in criminal justice reform. Yet, last week the CDCR took a positive step towards dealing with our broken and excessively costly prisons system while Assembly Members continued to run in circles. It seems the Assembly has set the bar for leadership so low, even the CDCR has met it.
Last Thursday, the CDCR announced it would close the largest youth prison in California, diverting young offenders to local facilities. This is one of the real reforms our coalition has called for to improve public safety and end wasteful prison spending. As part of the People’s Budget Fix, we have proposed keeping young offenders at the local level, closing all six of the costly and ineffective youth prisons, and diverting half of the budget currently spent on these prisons to local programs. If fully implemented, this reform would save $200 million a year.
Closing the largest youth prison is an excellent start which will save $30-40 million by the CDCR’s estimate. But we’ll need to do more if we’re going to come up with $1.2 billion in savings. The need for action could not be more urgent: we must find those savings in the Corrections’ budget to avoid more draconian cuts to education, health care and other public safety programs like domestic violence shelters and drug treatment programs.
Moreover, most Californians agree we need to cut wasteful prison spending. Polls show that most Californians think we should cut the Corrections budget and we should protect funding for education. Most Californians also agree that prison should be reserved for violent offenders, not people who commit petty offenses.
Yet, the Assembly cannot agree on what seems like common sense to the rest of us: people who commit low-level crimes like petty theft and simple drug possession should be punished on the local level, not in prison cells at a cost of nearly $50,000 per person per year. It shocks the conscience that Assembly Members were willing to vote for billions of dollars of cuts to education—the most important program to average Californians—but are afraid to cut wasteful prison spending by even a fraction of that.
If the Assembly fails to do its part this week, the CDCR and the Governor will have to do the rest. How? Without legislative action, the options for the CDCR and the Governor narrow, but they do have options. For example:
- Keep all young offenders local: The CDCR should close the five other youth prisons and divert all young offenders to local facilities and programs, to achieve the full savings of $1 billion in five years.
- Convert death sentences: The Governor should convert all death sentences to permanent imprisonment putting an end to the costly charade of capital punishment in California and saving $1 billion in five years.
Real reform of our criminal justice system will take years, not weeks. But it must start now. The reforms approved by the Senate and supported by the Governor and the CDCR should be easy for the Assembly to adopt. But if the Assembly doesn’t want to be part of the solution, then we should move on without them.
Natasha Minsker is the death penalty policy director of the ACLU of Northern California. The People’s Budget Fix is supported by Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Families Amend California’s Three Strikes, and the ACLU California affiliates.
Republished with permission from the California Progress Report.