Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Breaking open the empty piggy bank

By Natasha Minsker

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer is so broke he breaks into his daughter’s piggy bank, only to find it full of IOUs from himself? Then again, maybe it was Home Improvement… or Family Matters. One thing’s for sure, I don’t remember that scene in The Terminator – not even the third installment. So why is Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger so vividly replacing Homer Simpson in my memory of that scene?

On Wednesday, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced that he would be “borrowing” $64 million from the General Fund in order to move forward with one of his pet projects, the construction of a new death row facility at San Quentin. And $64 million is just the tip of the iceberg. Altogether, the new facility is expected to total upwards of $400 million.

That's half a million dollars per cell - roughly the cost of a nice house in the state of California.

Of course, the General Fund is virtually broke already, so our governor is borrowing against non-existent budget. And didn’t Schwarzenegger threaten that he wouldn’t sign a budget at all? Every government agency in the state is in fiscal emergency, our social safety net is in tatters, and the state is weeks away from paying state employees with IOUs.

But death row could use some sprucing up, after all.

That’s because California has by far the largest and most costly death row in the country with over 700 inmates, nearly double the closest runner up, all of whom live in a prison that pre-dates the Civil War. And its resident population keeps climbing: Some California counties are sending even more inmates to death row, ignoring the fact that nearly everyone on California's death row dies of natural causes, just like people sentenced to life without parole. Last year California sentenced more people to death than any state in the country, with Los Angeles County alone sending more people to death row than the entire state of Texas.

Those death sentences come with a steep price tag. Each one costs at least $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment. But that’s just the trial cost for each death penalty prosecution paid by the county. The cost for the entire death penalty system - paid by the state’s General Fund - only mounts from there. With Constitutionally-mandated appeals, housing, and upkeep on our current dilapidated death row facility, the annual cost of California’s death penalty is $126 million per year.

Plus there’s that new death row facility at $400 million. All told, that’s $1 billion in five years.

That's the amount the Governor could save California's taxpayers if he would cut the death penalty and convert all of those costly death sentences to permanent imprisonment. All without releasing a single prisoner and ensuring swift and certain justice for murder victims and their families. Permanent imprisonment saves money, saves time, and avoids the decades of turmoil from drawn out death-penalty appeals.

So where would you like to see Governor Schwarzenegger spend that $64 million from the California budget, instead of building a new death-row facility? Post your ideas in the comments section, then Tweet the Governor and tell him how he should spend it! Tweet @Schwarzenegger Say No to Death Row! Spend #64million on [insert your preferred state program] #cabudget.

Natasha Minsker is death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Drugs: It's Time for a Health Approach

By Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

The healthcare legislation President Obama signed earlier this year promises to bring sweeping changes to alcohol and drug treatment systems across the country. Not only will more people have access to insurance; heath insurers will be required to cover alcohol and drug treatment as they do any other chronic health condition (aka “parity”). Drug treatment – which currently exists largely outside the mainstream healthcare and insurance systems – may finally be allowed to come in from the cold.

As we work to make that treatment access a reality, however, we need to address the country’s existing contradictory policy responses to drug use. Even before the recent hard-won healthcare legislation, the U.S. Congress and a previous administration was on record as supporting parity. Two years ago, Congress passed – and President Bush signed – the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. At the same time, an overwhelming majority of the American electorate reports in national surveys that they believe that drug addiction is a treatable medical problem.

On both the political and personal levels, Americans understand that drug use is fundamentally a health matter. And yet, our laws continue to require the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of people who use drugs.

Since President Reagan called for a war on drugs in 1982, annual drug arrests had tripled to 1.8 million by 2008. Of those, 1.4 million were arrested for possession – not sales, manufacturing or trafficking. Nearly half of all drug arrests in 2008 were for marijuana. The number of people incarcerated for drug law violations has increased 1,100% since 1980. Today, nearly 6 in 10 people in a state prison for such violations have no history of violence or high-level drug sales.

About 30,000 people are in a California prison for a nonviolent drug offense; they make up over 15% of the prison population and cost $1.5 billion per year to incarcerate (or $49,000 each). A whopping 28.4% of new felony admissions to prison and 32.7% of parolees returning to prison with a new term in 2008 were for drug offenses. That doesn’t include drug-related technical parole revocations. The vast majority of these commitments were for drug possession, not sales, manufacturing or transport.

In 2008, over 200,000 Californians were arrested for a drug offense. In contrast, only 174,000 people accessed treatment that year – just a fraction of the estimated 3.3 million Californians with an alcohol or drug use disorder. Over half of those in treatment in the state came through the criminal justice system, giving rise to the belief that you have to get arrested to get treatment. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people arrested for a drug offense actually receive such help.

In the last three years alone, state funding for Proposition 36, California’s landmark voter-approved, treatment-instead-of-incarceration law, has been cut by 90% – from $145 million in 2007/8 to just $18 million this year. It’s a simple equation: the less funding available, the less treatment offered and the longer the waiting lists (months long in some cases).

Ten years after voters overwhelmingly passed Prop. 36, calling for treatment rather than incarceration, the governor has proposed eliminating funding for the program. Never mind that, according to UCLA, Prop. 36 saves $2.5-4 for every dollar invested, diverts over 30,000 people into treatment a year (when adequately funded), has helped reduce the number of people incarcerated for personal drug possession by 40% (or 8,000 people), and has had no negative impact on crime trends.

At the same time, the governor has proposed nearly eliminating funding for access to methadone maintenance therapy through Medi-Cal. By destabilizing the state's methadone treatment system, this could end treatment for up to 35,000 addicted individuals, pushing them to the streets, emergency rooms, jails and even death. Cutting treatment won't save. One year of methadone maintenance costs about $5,000 per patient; one year of incarceration in California costs nearly $50,000.

As access to community-based treatment is gutted, behind-bars treatment is also becoming unavailable. Under new California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) regulations, moderate- to high-risk offenders will have priority placement in drug treatment in the state’s prisons. Ironically, people behind bars for a drug offense – most of whom are deemed low risk to public safety – will not receive treatment behind bars or on parole, even if they have a serious drug problem.

The passage of federal healthcare legislation, the repeated passage of parity legislation in this state and even the state’s corrections bureaucracy have all come to the same conclusion: drug use is primarily a health issue, not a high risk to public safety. And yet the state’s penal code continues to criminalize drug use.

Until California can reconcile the discrepancy between health statute and penal code, the Democratic majority in the State Legislature has a responsibility to reduce – in every way that it can – the criminalization and incarceration of people for drug use and addiction. This year that means rejecting the governor’s proposal to defund Proposition 36 and refusing to cut Drug Medi-Cal's coverage of methadone maintenance.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is Deputy State Director, Southern California, for the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs and the proponent of Proposition 36 in 2000.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cut This: The Death Penalty

by James Clark

California’s governor has proposed closing the state’s $20 billion budget gap with a drastic cuts-only approach, slashing funding for vital human services without working to increase revenue. Yet one state program seems to be immune from these cuts: the death penalty.

We think the time has come to CUT THIS.

California spends vast amounts of money prosecuting death penalty cases and supporting death row. To avoid executing an innocent person, the death penalty process is long, complicated, and expensive. Each prosecution seeking death costs approximately $1.1 million more than a trial seeking permanent imprisonment, and with more than 700 inmates, California’s death row is by far the largest and most costly in the nation. In total, California’s death penalty system costs taxpayers $137 million per year.

Contrast that with just $11 million per year if we replace the death penalty with permanent imprisonment. Top that off with $400 million saved if we don’t build a new death row, needed because the existing one is so old and overcrowded.

Today, if Governor Schwarzenegger were to convert the sentences of all those on death row to permanent imprisonment, the state would save $1 billion over the next five years without releasing a single prisoner.

But the death penalty is not on the chopping block. Rather than cutting the death penalty, the Governor has focused on cutting the “rehabilitation” side of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Programs emphasizing education, rehabilitation, and addiction treatment have all seen cuts to their budgets, while death penalty prosecutions continue statewide.

Meanwhile, efforts to get California’s budget under control are threatening the safety of the state’s most vulnerable residents: seniors and people with disabilities who rely on in-home supportive care, working moms and their children surviving round after round of cuts to child care and CalWORKs, and children who depend on the Healthy Families program for insurance coverage. They all have faced dangerous erosions in access to health care and social services. Yet funding for death penalty prosecutions continues unabated.

Even victims of violent crime have felt the sting of the state budget cuts. Last year, the Legislature and the Governor took $50 million from the Victims’ Compensation Fund, cutting money used to pay for funeral services, counseling, and medical care for crime victims and their families. Now the fund is running out of money because the state has prioritized execution above victims’ services.

In addition, local law enforcement is also under threat. Los Angeles is currently unable to afford overtime pay for homicide investigations and Oakland is about to lay off 80 police officers. Already, more than half of the murders from the last ten years remain unsolved in Los Angeles County and Alameda County, where Oakland is located. Statewide, 45% of murders were not solved from 1999 to 2008. That means up to 10,000 killers walk the streets because we are not spending the time and money needed to catch them.

California must re-evaluate its budget priorities. Cuts to social services and effective public safety programs that protect communities and reduce crime threaten California families. Permanent imprisonment is a safe and cost effective alternative to the death penalty, providing swift and certain justice, real public safety, and massive budget savings that can be passed on to taxpayers. Every day more and more Californians are calling on Governor Schwarzenegger to CUT THIS. End the death penalty and save $1 billion in five years.

James Clark is the death penalty field organizer for the ACLU of Southern California. Learn more about how we can achieve Budget Justice in California.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

California’s Prison Reduction Plan Will Overburden Counties; Misses the Mark

By the Justice Policy Institute

WASHINGTON DC – The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a fact sheet today laying out reasons why the proposed California Community Corrections Act of 2010 is misguided and deeply flawed. The bill would move people serving sentences of less than three years from state prisons to already crowded county jails, shifting the costs to local counties that are already facing budget shortfalls. The grant funding available to counties for this move would not cover the costs of increased incarceration, but may create incentives for counties to incarcerate more people rather than to utilize alternatives to incarceration, like probation, since funding is based on the number of people held for the state.

JPI’s fact sheet, Shifting the Problem, notes that, on the heels of a recent court order to reduce the number of people in prison by 40,000, the state is moving in the right direction by examining different ways to reduce its prison population. This proposed legislation, however, would do more harm than good, and is not a solution to the continuing problem of over-incarceration in California; the state’s prison growth even outpaces its population growth.

"California’s prisons and jails are already beyond capacity; many of those warehoused are people who are not violent and should be returned to their communities, not moved to another jurisdiction,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI. “Counties will bear the burden as people are sent to local jails for years.”

Velázquez added, “The current budget situation calls for smart fiscal choices; the state would be wiser to invest in more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration that support people in their communities.”

The fact sheet calls for increasing access to parole, including medical parole for those with physical or mental health conditions, improving parole practices so fewer people are returned to prison and increasing access to treatment.

To read the full fact sheet, Shifting the Problem, CLICK HERE. For a more information, please visit our website at

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to reducing society’s use of incarceration and promoting just and effective social policies.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Seedy PR from the CDCR

by Kris Lev-Twombly

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) issued a press release late last week stating that they would be canceling all non-mandated visiting at all 33 adult prisons from June 25th – 26th.

In the final two weeks of their fiscal year, the department is “getting serious” about staying under budget. They’ll save a whopping $400,000 by shutting out the children, spouses, partners, parents, friends and extended families of over 100,000 inmates, just one weekend after Father’s Day.

Of course, it’s not unusual for California’s state agencies– or the State of California, for that matter– to put the burden of budget blunders on the backs of the poor and vulnerable. Take a look at Governor Schwarzenegger’s May budget revise for cuts to services for families, children, elderly, and disabled people.

To be honest, I have low hopes for the CDCR. The department is consistent in one way only: going over budget. I don’t expect the CDCR to undergo transformation– to demonstrate sensible fiscal management, to put rehabilitation first, or do anything other than pen people up in cages. That’s what CA prisons are designed for. Looking for new ways of doing the same old thing likely won’t generate savings or better public safety outcomes. Certainly eroding the connection between inmates and their families won’t do it.

If the State of California wants to reduce corrections costs and increase public safety, we need to reduce the number of people in prison and build a more effective system. Ella Baker Center has teamed up with the ACLU of Northern California and the Drug Policy Alliance to propose a series of public safety fixes that would save California $550 million of general fund dollars annually through the Budget Justice Coalition.

Perhaps not as sexy or punitive as canceling visitation for prisoners’ families, the following reforms blow the CDCR’s $400,000 savings out of the water:

Move incarceration for low-level offenses to the counties, while also reducing the impact on the counties by limiting lengthy sentences:

* Adjust the dollar threshold for felony property theft—not changed since 1982;
* Make certain low-level drug and property crimes into misdemeanors; and
* Make possession of small amounts of drugs (for personal use) a misdemeanor.

Eliminate unnecessary costs at the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation:

* Eliminate Time Adds which unnecessarily extend the sentences of youth; and
* Replace the costly and dysfunctional death penalty with permanent imprisonment.

Provide judges more flexibility in sentencing, to safely reduce the costs of handling low-level offenses at the county level:

* Eliminate probation ineligibility for some low-level drug and property crimes; and
* Eliminate mandatory minimum jail sentences for some low-level misdemeanors.

These recommendations and other information can be found at the Budget Justice blog. Each and and any of these changes would save the state millions and create a more just and effective system whereas keeping inmates from seeing their loved ones will do nothing to support their rehabilitation.

These reforms won’t happen overnight. But in less than a week, the families of the men and women in CDCR prisons will be shut out. You can email Matthew Cate, Secretary of the CDCR, at, and let him know you think it’s wrong to scramble for petty, last-second fiscal savings by canceling visitation for over 100,000 inmates.

Kris Lev-Twombly is the Director of Programs at the Ella Baker Center.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

No Budget in Sight

PHOTO: A man dressed as the Grim Reaper and wearing an Arnold Schwarzenegger mask helps lead a "die-in" in Los Angeles to show opposition to state budget cuts. (John W. Adkisson, Los Angeles Times / June 14, 2010)

You could be forgiven for missing the significance of June 16. Our elected officials don't seem interested in talking about it, either. As the Los Angeles Times writes:
State lawmakers blew past a constitutional deadline to pass a budget Tuesday, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrats who control the Legislature remain far apart on how to solve California's estimated $19.1-billion deficit.
Sacramento has made a habit of ignoring the budget deadline -- especially in election years. In 2008, the budget was a whopping 93 days late. When that happens, the state basically stops running and the most vulnerable people in the state suffer the most.

On July 1, the state's new fiscal year starts. Without a new state budget, the state's social support system basically stops functioning: welfare checks don't go out and drug treatment programs aren't able to pay their bills. Somehow, even without a budget, the state finds the resources to continue arresting and incarcerating people for nonviolent, low-level offenses like stealing food from the grocery store and personal drug possession.

This year, the ACLU of Southern California and other groups (see photo) are working to keep the pressure on our elected officials to pass a budget as soon as possible -- and do the least damage to California families.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Cost of Locking Up California’s Juveniles

by Sumayyah Waheed

California essentially gave up on Maria Santana’s son when he was 15 years old and was locked up in the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) youth prisons. Initially told he would be released in four years, Maria’s son has been languishing for nearly 10 years. With eight other children and recently losing her job, Maria can’t afford to drive six hours to Ventura to visit him.

It costs approximately $200,000 per year to lock up a young person in DJJ. So what has the taxpayers’ $2 million dollar investment in Maria’s son brought him, his family or his community? When his mom sees his resignation, his broken spirit and the scars on his body from rubber bullets, she knows that the state has failed him. He’s certainly not the only one. Despite costing more than $436 million annually to warehouse only 1,300 youth, DJJ fails 72 percent of the time — meaning that 72 percent of the young people are rearrested soon after release.

We’re paying $200,000 per youth per year for lockup in a violent, failed system. In comparison, a young person in a California public school merits only $7,100 per year for education. California adult prisons cost $8.2 billion, locking up 160,000 adults, but our public college system gets far less — $5.5 billion to educate more than 650,000 students.

The governor proposes teacher layoffs, health care cuts for infants and children and the end of in-home support for the elderly ill but wants to spend even more on our state prisons.

In the governor’s slash-and-burn May budget revision, prisons received nearly $190 million in additional funding. That much money could rescind 3,000 teacher layoffs or restore thousands of kids kicked off state health insurance.

Schwarzenegger also proposed giving counties an additional $300 million to build local juvenile jails, without requiring them to work with the youth warehoused in the remote DJJ prisons. Across California, counties’ existing juvenile facilities are actually underpopulated, so we don’t need more concrete cots at the county level. We need a new vision for public safety and effective rehabilitation.

As part of Books Not Bars, I work with hundreds of family members like Maria, who have experienced the cycles of incarceration via their kids’ experiences. Their stories affirm for me that additional public safety spending must be used on programs with a strong evidence base that provide education, counseling and support to the youth and their families. These programs are humane and proven to work. They more effectively and efficiently use scarce budget resources to help youth who have made mistakes turn their lives around.

Other states have learned to spend less on youth incarceration and get higher rates of success. New York, Missouri and Washington, among others, provide strong models for reform that California could imitate.

It’s past time that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature got their priorities straight and invested wisely. The families of incarcerated youth say close the decrepit and dangerous DJJ prisons and invest in public education, children’s health care, and effective rehabilitative services, so that Maria Santana’s kids, my future kids and all of our kids will have the resources they need to keep them safe and the opportunities available to succeed.

Sumayyah Waheed is the incoming Campaign Director of the Books Not Bars program at the Ella Baker Center. An op-ed version of this article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

(Reprinted from Ella Baker Center Blog)