Where did California’s savings from reducing drug penalties go?

July 26, 2016 6:00 AM

By Rachel Cohrs

Nearly 20 ex-convicts who had been drug addicts, gangbangers and prostitutes strained their eyes in an attempt to grasp the colorful, intricate diagram scribbled on the whiteboard.

On a Sunday afternoon in Oakland, the group gathered with community organizers to discuss mass incarceration in a small, fluorescent-lit office tucked in a strip mall.

Brandon Sturdivant, an advocate with the faith-based network Oakland Community Organizations, pointed at the board that described the impacts of Proposition 47. Specifically, he singled out one number: $67 million.

“This is what matters,” Sturdivant said. “The money.”

Proposition 47, which passed in 2014, reduced drug possession and some crimes of petty theft, check forgery and receiving stolen property from felonies to misdemeanors. The initiative mandated that savings from downgrading these offenses be spent on mental health and substance abuse treatment, victim services and truancy prevention.

Voters were told the shift in emphasis from prison to rehabilitation could result in savings in “the low hundreds of millions.” Yet the final savings figure to pay for prevention and treatment – reached after months of tense disagreements and accusations of betrayal – is far below the original estimate.

“We pass an important ballot initiative, we change the law and we change the game to reallocate the resources. Then they start playing with our money again. I don’t understand. I was like, ‘Man, no.’ Add $100 million to the pot,” said Aqeela Sherrills, a community activist and Proposition 47 supporter.

Proposition 47 never specified exactly how the savings were supposed to be calculated.

But in 2014, both the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Department of Finance signed off on the estimate voters saw on ballots.

“We didn’t hear anything from Department of Finance saying, ‘Hold your horses, this is overly ambitious,’” said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, a key advocate of more money for treatment programs.

Department of Finance budget analyst Joshua Gauger said the initial estimate was made in January 2014, a month before a federal court ordered population reductions in California prisons. The ruling, Gauger said, altered the state’s prison population, budget and housing plans, and were not accounted for in the number that appeared on the ballot.

In early 2016, as budget deliberations began, the LAO projected that the initiative saved approximately $130 million in the previous year. However, the Department of Finance calculated that the savings were less than a quarter of the LAO’s estimate, coming in at $29.3 million.

The key difference between the two estimates was deciding where inmates would have been held in custody.

The LAO estimated that most of the 5,247 inmates who avoided prison or were released would have been kept in “contract beds” either in California, Arizona or Mississippi. A contract bed costs nearly $29,000 per inmate annually, while a typical state prison bed costs just over $9,000, according to the state Department of Finance. Contract beds are used to keep California’s prison population below court-imposed population caps intended to reduce overcrowding.

Gauger said there is no guarantee that the state would have chosen to use contract beds to house the inmates. Hypothetically, he said, if Proposition 47 had not passed, the state could have opted to build more prison capacity or institute other policies to reduce the prison population. By this logic, the department estimated that the vast majority of the hypothetical inmates would have been housed in traditional state prisons.

Proposition 47 gives the Finance Department the final say. After the administration added $10 million and lawmakers added a one-time $28 million bonus during negotiations, the state budgeted a final total of $67.4 million.

Sixty-five percent of the calculated savings from Proposition 47 will go toward funding grants for mental health and substance abuse treatment services. In the coming months, community-based programs will partner with public agencies to apply for the savings dollars. The grant money is supposed to be awarded in spring 2017.

The grants will target programs that serve formerly incarcerated individuals. Oakland community organizer Sholonda Jackson-Jasper saw the benefits of one such program firsthand; addiction and the following cycle of incarceration, she said, nearly ruined her life.

Minutes before the discussion in Oakland started, she fluttered about dragging tables into precisely the right positions and making last-minute calls to the catering service. She had her hair curled to host her first community event. A tattoo spelled “Sassy” in curly script across her left bicep; it was her nickname on the street.

Jackson-Jasper spent her childhood in a foster home in Sacramento. She ended up pregnant at 15 and married with a child at 16. Jackson-Jasper’s husband eventually received temporary custody of their son.

“I didn’t know what that meant, so I got high. I just buried my head in the sand because that was the easy way to deal with it,” Jackson-Jasper said.

She sank into a downward spiral of addiction. Over the span of 10 years she went to prison 13 times. She entered a couple of treatment programs over the years, but she said it “wasn’t the right time.”

After one incident in 2004, she met with a public defender who looked over her record and recommended her for a substance abuse treatment program. This time, she said, she was ready. She said she completed a 12-month treatment program in eight months and has been sober for 12 1/2 years. Now she is a case manager at Operation Dignity, a nonprofit that works to connect homeless veterans with services, and working toward a master’s degree in social work.

“I felt like God had given me another chance to do the right thing, and I was not going to mess this up,” Jackson-Jasper said.

In 2014, Jackson-Jasper was involved in canvassing and phone banking to pass Proposition 47. Since its passage, she has gotten several of her own qualifying felony convictions expunged from her record. When asked about the final savings number, Jackson-Jasper shook her head.

“I wasn’t surprised. What can you do?” she said.

While the budget for this year is solidified, advocates plan to push changes to the calculation formula in upcoming

“There is still a longer-term fight over how we calculate these savings that will go toward Proposition 47 in the future….(The bonus) was a one-time allocation, and it won’t happen next year. We need to put something in place to sustain the funding,” said Karren Lane, vice president of policy at the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Community Coalition.

Gauger with the Department of Finance said he believes the department’s methodology is “consistent with the letter and spirit of Proposition 47.”

Jones-Sawyer said going back to the ballot to specify a formula was an option he has heard being tossed around. Regardless of the method, Proposition 47 advocate Sherrills said proponents have to stay “on top of” the savings allocations.

“The victory is not Proposition 47 passed; the victory is Proposition 47 implemented,” Sherrills said.

Rachel Cohrs: 916-321-1046, @rachelcohrs