A new year means ramping up work on a new state budget. And this year’s proposed budget – due out any day now from Gov. Jerry Brown – is an opportunity for lawmakers to use the state’s improving finances as a foundation for boosting investment in public services that are crucial to strong communities and widely shared economic growth.
Of course, a good state budget is one that works to promote long-term fiscal stability. But we also must ensure that California is making severely needed investments in reducing poverty and promoting economic security, improving educational and health outcomes, and increasing public safety.
This year’s budget deliberations present an important new opportunity in the arena of public safety, as policymakers will be responsible for reallocating some state revenue from prisons to local crime prevention and treatment programs, as called for by voter approval of Proposition 47 in 2014.
Proposition 47 changed six low-level felonies – simple drug possession, shoplifting under $950, writing bad checks and others – to misdemeanors. Further, Proposition 47 requires that the state savings, resulting from a decrease in the prison population and other factors, be allocated as follows: 65 percent to local mental health and drug treatment programs, 25 percent to K-12 programs for at-risk youths, and 10 percent to trauma recovery services for crime victims. In light of persistently high state prison spending, this is a key step forward in California’s efforts to reduce the cost of its prison system – and high rates of recidivism.
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The governor’s Department of Finance is charged with calculating the state savings from Proposition 47. The governor will likely provide an initial estimate of the savings for the current budget year as part of his proposed budget, with a final calculation due by July 31. The independent, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has already weighed in, projecting annual state savings in the range of $100 million to $200 million, but the governor will have the last word on the actual calculation.
Reallocating dollars from prisons to local programs is critical to creating and maintaining strong, safe and healthy communities. Local prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs – the keys to stopping cycles of crime without relying on costly state prisons – have been underfunded for decades. So, California has much ground to make up.
Proposition 47 builds on other important reforms, especially 2011’s “realignment,” which transferred certain public safety responsibilities – along with a dedicated source of funding – from the state to the counties, and the expansion of Medi-Cal, which increased access to drug and mental health treatment, interventions that can help break the cycle of crime. Like these reforms, Proposition 47 presents an opportunity to invest in the very strategies that local communities need to improve public safety and stop the flow of people into state prison.
This is part of a national effort to rethink public safety spending priorities. Other states show what’s possible when taxpayer dollars are shifted from corrections to local, evidence-based public safety strategies. Broad-based public participation is a key driver of success, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Urban Institute. That same level of participation should help guide how our state invests the Proposition 47 savings.
While there is a new budget every year, not every year presents the opportunities that the combination of rising state revenues and Proposition 47 implementation provides for our state. Voters, advocates and many others are watching to see how the governor proposes to leverage these opportunities, including Proposition 47 savings, and whether this is part of a broader effort to boost public investment in – and improve outcomes for – individuals, families and communities across California.
Chris Hoene is executive director of the California Budget & Policy Center.