What could the public stand to lose Thursday when a powerful and little-known administrative body begins directing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to jail diversion, mental health and substance-use treatment programs?
The answer depends on where the money goes and who gets to decide. It could end up being nothing more than an elaborate sleight of hand, with California celebrating fewer people in prison due to Proposition 47, only to funnel the savings back into jails and law enforcement.
Passed overwhelmingly a year ago, the proposition reclassified certain low-level felonies as misdemeanors and is expected to lower prison costs by more than $150 million this fiscal year. Most savings are earmarked for mental health, drug treatment and diversion programs; additional legislation further prioritized these funds for community programs offering housing assistance, job training and other re-entry services.
The pairing of release and treatment is a common-sense formula, and this is in large part why a majority of voters continue to support Proposition 47. In a recent poll, more than 90 percent agreed that there should be increased funding for community mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
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However, the Board of State and Community Corrections, which decides how the money is spent, is dominated by law enforcement officials, many of whom publicly opposed Proposition 47 and may push for these savings to go to jail programs.
On Thursday, the board will appoint the chairpersons of a committee that will draft the guidelines for awarding the money and award $500 million to counties seeking to build new jails, many of which have been marketed as “mental health jails.” To staff and run these new jails, sheriffs are going to jump at the Prop. 47 money.
Not everyone is buying this sleight of hand, including San Francisco’s recently re-elected District Attorney George Gascón, who says that incarceration doesn’t help people who are mentally ill or are substance abusers.
Abundant evidence confirms he is right. Community treatment programs cost less, are more effective at healing people and reduce the rates of people returning to prison, compared with jail treatment programs. This means a safer society: more funding for preventive services, more treatment and less fractured communities for people coming in and out of jail.
A broad coalition of Californians will be at Thursday’s meeting to advocate that the funding committee consist entirely of people with expertise in community treatment, homelessness and re-entry programs, including formerly incarcerated people who understand how jails worsen substance use and mental health issues. (Comments can be sent by email to Proposition47@bscc.ca.gov.)
We will also demand that law enforcement agencies be ineligible for the funds. Californians voted for change and a safer society, not more funding for jails.
Evan Bissell is a student in public health and city planning at UC Berkeley and a member of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.