Reject more jail expansion and invest in prevention, re-entry

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing $250 million for county jail construction. More than 40 counties are already building new jails, adding 14,000 new beds.
Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing $250 million for county jail construction. More than 40 counties are already building new jails, adding 14,000 new beds. Sacramento Bee file

Recently, when Gov. Jerry Brown warned of impending deficits and the perils of committing to new spending in his revised budget proposal, he failed to mention the one area in which he has been consistently profligate: his aggressive expansion of the state’s already vast system of imprisonment.

The governor is proposing $250 million for county jail construction, on top of the $2.2 billion he has already poured into expanding county jails since 2008. More than 40 counties are already building new jails, adding 14,000 new beds.

Last Wednesday, the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety voted to reject this harmful and irresponsible expenditure of tax dollars, and to redirect the funds to prevention, diversion and re-entry. The Assembly subcommittee, which could vote as early as Monday, should follow suit.

More jail construction would not only divest from low-income communities of color, but would ultimately drive them deeper into traumatization, destabilization and cycles of imprisonment.

California has a critical opportunity to significantly and sustainably shrink its jail system and reduce the number of people caged within. Model alternatives to incarceration are finding success across the state and nation, including pretrial release, diversion programs and highly effective community-based mental health and substance use treatment programs.

Proposition 47 has reduced jail populations by nearly 10 percent; additional reforms, such as Senate Bill 966, which would repeal the sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions, could meaningfully reduce the extreme sentences people serve in county jails. And policymakers can address the root causes of incarceration by investing in safety net programs that would alleviate the suffering of the many impoverished Californians.

If the Legislature approves the governor’s plan for jail construction, it will remove any incentive to explore these promising options and waste critical tax dollars that should go toward addressing the broad range of urgent needs in poor communities of color.

This funding for jail construction would thus result in counties expanding their use of imprisonment as a catchall for social problems caused by trauma, poverty and social isolation, accelerating the downward mobility of communities that have been devastated by decades of cruel and ineffective tough-on-crime policies and economic divestment.

The people who are currently imprisoned – and whose children and grandchildren could be imprisoned in the jails this proposal would build – come disproportionately from neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black, Latino and poor, and which suffer from high rates of unemployment and poverty, homelessness and lack of other basic services.

These are the same neighborhoods to which people return when they are released from jail. More jail construction does not address any of these problems – it only makes them more severe and spreads them across generations.

Rather than institutionalize our soaring incarceration rates for decades, the Legislature should use the $250 million toward repairing the destructive impact of high levels of criminalization and imprisonment on low-income communities. They must incentivize decarceration and support re-entry – including support for the families of incarcerated people, who bear much of the costs of their loved one’s imprisonment and reintegration. The Legislature must strengthen the social safety net to address root causes of incarceration, such as repealing the punitive CalWORKs Maximum Family Grant rule that denies public benefits to children solely because they are born into a family already on cash assistance.

During the governor’s news conference, he drew upon Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant to exhort the virtues of “preparing for the days of necessity.” His vision of what those days will look like is grim for California’s poorest communities: a world in which their problems will be addressed not with strong and supportive services, but with modern and fortified cages.

Lizzie Buchen is co-coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Contact her at