LOS ANGELES -- The groundbreaking California proposition that reduced drug possession and other nonviolent minor crimes from felonies to misdemeanors is also reducing the state’s lock-up expenses, creating a multi-million-dollar surplus. It is also prompting a grass roots campaign to use that money to provide more opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.
That campaign recently demonstrated its support when nearly 1,000 people attended a Los Angeles town hall meeting last week with Linda Penner, chair of California’s Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC). In the wake of voters’ approval of Proposition 47 in 2014, BSCC is empowered to make decisions on how 65 percent of the surplus will be spent. The surplus could be $100 million to $300 million annually, according to one state agency estimate.
At stake are “more dollars” for re-entry assistance programs for those who served prison sentences or “more of the same policing and imprisonment,” according to LA Voice PICO, the organizer of the town hall and an affiliate of PICO California, a community-organizing coalition of advocates for racial and economic justice.
Many of the LA Voice speakers at the town hall told BSCC Chair Penner that her agency could help the formerly incarcerated transition successfully by providing funding to such effective re-entry programs as the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, which provides jobs and transition services. A number of Homeboy Industries’ supporters and employees spoke at the town hall – among them Deborah Logan, who obtained a position at Homeboy after serving 13 years for “petty” theft.
“I got out and changed my life,” she said. “I’m begging the board to spend the money so that we don’t have another Deborah Logan.”
A lawyer affiliated with Homeboy Industries, Pegah Shahriari, told the gathering that 70 percent of those incarcerated return to California’s prisons and that 70 percent of those who transition through Homeboy Industries succeed.
“We should harness the savings for re-entry,” she said. “Let’s stop building jails and start building lives.”
Shahriari said LA Voice wants priority funding for mental health and drug recovery programs and more coordination between probation departments and community-based re-entry programs.
Also, LA Voice wants the BSCC to include a formerly incarcerated person on the executive steering committee that the agency will create this fall. That committee will help create guidelines that will be included in the application forms community organizations will submit to request money from the surplus fund.
There must be substantial funding for community-based re-entry programs if the state is to reduce recidivism, said town hall speaker Hillary Blout, a former Bay Area prosecutor who manages issues related to Proposition 47 for Californians for Safety and Justice, an Oakland-based criminal justice reform organization.
“Once you’re in the criminal justice system, the odds of getting out and getting ahead are very difficult,” she said. “Let’s divert this money and put it back in communities.”
Blout said the crime rate in the state is about the same as it was in 1962 but that there are about five times as many in prison today.
To address prison overcrowding, the state has been transferring low-level offenders to local jails under a “realignment” program initiated in 2011.
Realignment and Proposition 47 “have put California on the forefront of innovation” in criminal justice, Penner told the gathering. “We want to take what resources we have and move them out to communities.”
However, during the question-and-answer session, Penner said she could not be more specific about agency plans because the state legislature must pass bills that will serve as funding guides. The legislature is expected to do so by this fall and Gov. Jerry Brown has until mid-October to sign them.
Once that happens, BSCC will host a series of hearings on spending priorities in different parts of the state. The agency is expected to begin providing grants from the surplus in 2016.
The Los Angeles town hall was the third of four forums organized by PICO California to engage BSCC. The previous gatherings were held in other parts of the state with organizations that – like LA Voice – are affiliated with PICO California.
The next town hall will be held May 19 in Sacramento. PICO California plans to send representatives to BSCC meetings this summer as part of its campaign.