CORRECTION: Please note that AB109 and SB85 were passed through the Legislature, but were not signed by Governor Brown.


Partnership Needed on Corrections

Sacramento Bee

Unlike other states, California in the last two decades has relied almost entirely on the state prison system to handle people convicted of crimes.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to change that, returning low-level, short-term offenders to the counties. If he can pull it off – and we’re in his corner – this would be the most significant and positive policy change to California state government in decades.

As we’ve noted on these pages, “In the past, local jails and community punishment programs were the preferred way to handle low-level offenders. They kept the offender close to home, family, jobs, schooling and other services. Putting nonviolent, low-level offenders in state prison was seen as harmful because it broke local ties and sucked the offender into the prison culture.”

The counties have been starved of resources for jail space and community punishment programs, so more and more low-level offenders end up in state prisons – and state spending on prisons continues to grow unchecked.

It is long past time to break that cycle.

Gov. Brown has returned to a framework that was signed into law 17 years ago. The Community-Based Punishment Act of 1994 passed the Legislature unanimously and was signed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. It established a partnership between state and local governments to keep nonviolent offenders at the local level who otherwise would be sent to state prison for terms of two years or less. However, it was never funded.

The Legislature reaffirmed that framework this month and the bill (AB109/SB85) was signed by Brown on Thursday.

However, the same vexing problem of funding remains.

To make this work, the money that the state would save by not housing an offender in the most expensive option of state prison ($50,000 a year per offender) has to get to the counties.

And the funding needs to be stable and long-term.

Gov. Brown and his team have been doing heavy lifting on this one – with the counties, the criminal justice community and legislators.

This is what the proposed ballot measure to extend taxes that would otherwise expire on July 1 – still awaiting legislative action – really is all about. Get it done. We can’t wait another 17 years.

Senate Constitutional Amendment 1, by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would extend the temporary 1 percent sales tax and the ½ percent vehicle license fee for five years, until July 1, 2016. But what happens after that?

The counties would still be guaranteed an estimated $5.6 billion in sales taxes and $1.7 billion in vehicle license fees. That money would be deposited in a local revenue fund for public safety.

Between economic recovery and state prison savings, this should not be an undue burden and is worth doing.

That said, there’s room for improvement. The definition of “public safety services” currently is so broad as to be meaningless.

It includes fire protection for lands in the wildland-urban interface, mental health and substance abuse services, foster care, adoption and child neglect and abuse services. Yes, these functions should be shifted from the state to the counties, but they cannot just be lumped with no explanation as “public safety services.”

Advocates need to make a stronger public case on why these should be included in the dedicated local revenue fund after July 2016.

The state prison system would continue to handle incarceration and parole for those convicted of a serious or violent offense, “three-strikers” and high-risk sex offenders. Equally important, parolees would return to state prison only if convicted of a new crime; counties would handle technical parole violations, currently a major source of churn in the state prison system.

Counties would have flexibility for handling offenders – jail, boot camps, substance abuse treatment, intensive probation supervision, electronic monitoring, work furloughs and more.

That’s the way it should be.