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Despite Prop 47, California Continues to Invest In Incarceration

California fails to take advantage of opportunities to reduce their inmate population, according to an annual report published by prison reform group Californians United For A Responsible Budget (CURB). This trend occurs in spite of the fact that California voters passed Proposition 47 last year to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the state by cutting sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and misdemeanors.

The report [PDF] gives a failing score to every county it surveyed in California for the first time since the grading began four years ago.

In nearly every county, government officials contemplated jail expansion and construction. CURB found twenty-three counties are building new jails, five are building two or more jails, and thirty-two are applying for construction funding from the state. Meanwhile, in-custody deaths rose 65%, and violence and excessive use of force against inmates is widespread across the state.

Rather than respond to the clear mandate from California voters for alternative sentencing and community-based alternatives to incarceration, county sheriffs and boards of supervisors have opted to build new jails and secure facilities to provide treatments and programming, known as “social service jails,” from which participants may not leave:

Although [social service] jails may sound like positive steps, they are still jails: They forcibly remove people from their families and communities, seclude them in locked cages, and deprive them of autonomy, dignity, and any sense of control. Sheriffs are not service providers, yet in using this social service rhetoric, their departments are able to garner funding intended to support community-based services through AB109 and Prop. 47-related funding. Importantly, funding budget-draining jail construction projects means community-based treatments — which are more effective, more humane, and come at a fraction of the price — get cut.

The vast majority of inmates held in these county jails are awaiting trial and many cannot afford to post bail.

San Francisco and Alameda County Sheriffs applied for jail expansion funding totaling in the millions. In San Francisco, the total price tag for new jail construction could reach $240 million even though 50% of jail beds have been left unused. Sheriff Ahern in Alameda County is applying for funding to remodel two unused housing units and is leasing empty beds to other counties and the federal government to turn a profit for his department.

Sacramento, which has experienced public opposition to the jail expansion plan, was awarded $80 million to build a facility that includes 32 beds for people with medical and mental health needs.

CURB notes Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones, who led the county to engage in cell phone surveillance, has “consistently heightened public safety fears to ensure funding for jail expansion, publicly questioning the efficacy of rehabilitation programs and making baseless statements such as ‘It’s easy to see there are going to be more folks committing more crime in the community.'”

Monterey is home to one of the most overcrowded jails in the state – housing over 1,000 in a facility built for less than 850. It, too, is looking at an $80 million jail construction plan and is applying for $40 million to build a stand alone mental health and vocational/program space next to the jail.

Riverside currently has two jail expansion plans, including provisions that do not allow for direct contact between inmates and visitors and new solitary confinement units. A committee to look at rehabilitation programs and the need for re-entry and transitional housing programs does not include members of the community. The county is also hiring more deputies.

In Orange County, officials broke ground on a multi-million facility, despite a decrease in the incarcerated population by 22% after Prop 47. Another $80 million was awarded for a facility “focused on classrooms and therapy” for minimum and medium security inmates. No visitor contact will be allowed for Orange County inmates, either. The plan faces significant public opposition.

L.A. County accounts for one third of the state’s jail population and has been under a federally imposed population cap since the 1980’s. Despite rampant brutality, abuse and neglect in L.A. County jails, and a significant reduction in the inmate population following Proposition 47, the county is pursuing multiple multi-million dollar jail construction programs.

San Bernadino is “plowing ahead” with more expansion programs after just completing others – including contracts with private facilities for immigrant detainees.

CURB recommendations focus on the allocation of funds to better serve communities and reduce reliance on incarceration.

The group encourages California to enact a moratorium on new jail construction financing and instead fund expanded re-entry services and support. They also call on the state to introduce policies that would reduce the number of people in jail who do not pose a threat of violence or further lawbreaking through means such as release to supervision one year before their release date.

Additionally, the group recommends reducing the number of people incarcerated for parole violations and the creation of pre-booking diversion processes for those charged with drug possession, sex work or minor property crime.

CURB also calls on the counties to reduce jail populations by targeting the drivers of pretrial incarceration. CURB recommends jails eliminate cash bail, expedite court transfers and processing, and expand treatment opportunities, re-entry services and support programs.

The group also suggests counties do more to help struggling families instead of punishing them. They recommend alternative custody programs for incarcerated parents, and connecting people with public benefits programs. Implementing a maximum sentence for misdemeanors to reduce deportation orders and urging counties to stop contracts with Immigration Customs Enforcement could have a positive impact.

Any savings from Prop 47 should be used to invest in services based in communities instead of policies and punishments that destroy them.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.