Gov.’s budget proposal puts money toward better public safety outcomes

150 150 Christopher Nelson

(photo credit: Brian Yap)

Gov. Brown’s most recent budget proposal doubles down on shifting decision-making power back to local communities. CA Fwd has advocated from the beginning that local governments needed more authority and resources to solve community problems so this is important reform. Better decisions are made closer to the people those decisions affect most.

Perhaps no area felt this shift earlier and more intensely than public safety. Way back in October of 2011, the highest court in the land said that state prison populations had to be dramatically reduced to improve health conditions. AB 109 was enacted and implemented on an accelerated time line, adding anxiety to a complex process of establishing 58 different county-based alternatives to the state prison system.

Now more than two years in, CA Fwd sees public safety realignment as an opportunity to put in place smarter governance models that focus on performance and create more accountability. In this case, strong community corrections centered on rehabilitation and re-entry in place of an outdated, incarceration-focused philosophy.

Counties are already doing a better job of using data and promising practices to better manage offenders based on risk and through cost-effective interventions. Offenders with mental health and drug problems have been driving up costs and counties are being given resources for alternative, more cost-effective ways to deal with those underlying issues.

Fewer people behind bars means less crime, less victimization and less money being spent on jail and prison beds. Successful rehabilitation and treatment of those with drug addictions and mental illness also achieve the same outcome. And with more acting as productive members of society, the economy and social infrastructure see gains as well.

Overall, Gov. Brown’s proposed budget represents a stronger effort to put funding toward achieving better public safety outcomes. Some bullet points:

Split Sentencing: Any county jail felony sentence would be a split sentence unless there’s good reason for straight jail time  with no post-release supervisory “tail.” This is designed to assure that offenders are under supervision and receive treatment in the community for a period of their sentence. One caveat: although the evidence supports such a move, if judges do not believe that sufficient programs and supervision can be provided in the community, they will not embrace split-sentences wholesale. Hopefully with more funding going into probation departments, Medi-Cal reimbursement for drug treatment, and other enhancements, this won’t be an issue.

SB 678: Substantial increase in funding from $42 million (anticipated) to $128 M based on changes via SB 105 would inject more cash into a piece of legislation that incentivizes lower state prison populations. SB 678 grants have been very successful in decreasing probation failure rates. In 2011 and 2012, more than 15,000 prison admissions were averted, according to estimates.

Medi-Cal Expansion: Overt support from the administration for the Medi-Cal expansion and, in particular, behavioral health services to offenders, will be a huge boon toward reducing recidivism. The Affordable Care Act allows offenders, who are single childless adults, to access Medi-Cal and health exchange benefits. Previously counties would have paid 100 percent of costs for treatment of these offenders. Two things here:

1.    Big expansion of addiction treatment benefits is critical to the success of realignment given the high percentage of offenders with substance abuse problems;

2.    Big investment in community crisis beds and mobile crisis teams is critical to reducing the number of people with serious mental illness entering the justice system and reducing recidivism of those with serious mental illness in community corrections.

Focus on Reentry: Funds for community reentry facilities will help facilitate re-integration for those just released from prisons.  The Administration proposes $40 million for facilities for inmates who are within one year of release from prison, either through reentry programs provided in jails or residential reentry services provided in facilities within the community. The Administration also proposes $8.3 million for design of a new project to renovate existing buildings, which will become an additional reentry hub when activated.

New Capacity: An additional $500 million is allocated toward SB 1022 jail facilities, which would pay for the design, construction, or renovation of housing units, support buildings, and programming space. Jails, just like prisons, were not designed for longer term inmates or treatment and programming so to the extent these funds are used for “better beds” versus more beds. This is a good thing.

Incompetent to Stand Trial: $28 million is allocated for an increase in bed capacity for those not mentally fit to stand trial and $1 million for better coordination and management of those persons will reduce crowding in jails and move cases through the courts more efficiently. 

This assessment is surface-level but it’s hard not to feel positive about the Governor’s increasingly nuanced approach to public safety.

We spent much of 2013 working with the counties about tapping the Affordable Care Act to cover mental health and drug treatment for these offenders – and through that build a more cost-effective system that can save billions downstream. The Governor’s proposed budget institutionalizes support for this effort at the state level.

In 2014, CA Fwd will be working with a handful of counties —probably three—to develop the culture and infrastructure to make data-based decisions and to embed new processes and practices that will result in better outcomes. If the spirit and letter of this budget on the public safety front remain intact after the Legislative gauntlet, we see big gains ahead on all fronts.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson