Viewpoints: State budget held hostage by prison costs

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By Jim Lindburg
Special to The Bee
Published: Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010 | Page 13A

The budget passed by the Legislature last month revealed the toxic relationship between California’s financial crisis and California’s prison crisis.

In a move that truly turns logic on its head, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $820 million for prison health care from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, crippling a system that has been placed under federal receivership because of gross patient neglect. Cutting nearly half the budget is an unlikely guarantee of basic, humane service provision, and harms those already suffering in already deplorable conditions.

With regard to sentencing and prison overcrowding, the Legislature is seemingly unable to make decisions that make fiscal or moral sense. The budget eliminates state funding – $18 million – for the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2000, which provides drug treatment for people convicted of nonviolent, low-level drug crimes, despite the fact that drug treatment has been proved to be more effective and cheaper than incarceration.

Even a modest realignment proposal by the Senate to give counties block grants to keep people convicted of “wobblers” – offenses that may be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies – at the local level and require counties to pay for sending them to state prison failed to attract any Republican support necessary for passage.

The cuts to prison services and programs are mirrored by nearly $1 billion in devastating cuts made throughout education, health and social services outside of prisons.

The state has deferred critical, long-overdue payments to schools and community colleges. The governor’s line-item vetoes chopped 700 social work jobs and leave 20,000 children without mental health services. The cuts are a crippling hardship for Californians in a time when residents already face high unemployment and difficult economic times.

These attacks on the fundamental quality of life of all Californians fly in the face of basic prison spending reductions that would result in more savings and would actually benefit the people of California. Independent agencies such as the Legislative Analyst’s Office and community groups across that state have found over and over that changes such as eliminating the governor’s discretion to veto parole recommendations, abolishing or amending the three-strikes law and discharging people over 60 to parole would save the taxpayers millions and take important steps to reduce our prison population.

While prison and jail construction is a deep drain on our state’s budget, our bloated prison system is nationally notorious. Over the past 30 years, we have watched our prison population skyrocket to 170,000, while conditions inside and outside have plummeted just as quickly. Inside, people face severe overcrowding and neglect of medical and mental health services.

These conditions have led to at least one death a week inside. Outside, fractured families and communities struggle to stay in contact with their loved ones and struggle with progressively harsher sentencing laws. As a result of this crisis, a federal court has ordered California to reduce the prison population by 43,000 over the next two years.

What California doesn’t include in its budget projections for 2011 are the operating costs and debt accumulation/repayment for new construction that it has proposed to address these issues of overcrowding. If the state wants to create 40,000 new prison cells, and is allegedly going to provide better medical and mental health care and more programming, operating costs will be at least $800 million a year. Add in debt service and we are looking at almost $2 billion more in spending a year that is not being accounted for in the 2011 budget.

Instead of choosing cuts that would save taxpayers millions, comply with intent of the federal court order and provide positive change for Californians, the Legislature is cutting services in a program that is already a human rights disaster while debilitating basic living, working and educational conditions for residents, both inside and outside prisons.

Cutting mental health services or drug treatment programs while prioritizing prison and jail construction will not solve California’s prison crisis, just as cutting education, social and health services will not solve California’s financial crisis. It is clear: more prisons and more arrests do not make California a safer place. Californians have pointed out time and time again that access to decent education, health care, jobs and job training are things that have always made their communities safe, sustainable and thriving places to live.

Generations of people, from our youth to our elders, are being denied basic education and social services that will have long-lasting impacts on their health, education and our state. We will never give Californians the conditions to thrive until we stop consuming the state budget with the expansion of prisons.



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