AB 2356: Back to the Future of the California Prison Building Boom

Too many policymakers still fail to realize that job and social service investments are a more effective public safety strategy than building more jails and prisons.
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On top of the 1.7 billion dollars already allocated by California lawmakers for jail construction, Jeff Gorell (R-44th district) recently introduced a bill (Assembly Bill 2356) that would further increase state funding for jail construction from $500 million to $1.2 billion. The Legislative Analyst Office of California already effectively described the initial allocation of $500 million as unnecessary. Gorell's bill, which would more than double that amount, represents a sobering choice for California lawmakers about the state's commitment to justice reform and a growing economy.

The question of how to keep budgets balanced between increasing economic opportunity and keeping people safe is one that both blue and red states are facing. Yet, too many policymakers still fail to realize that job and social service investments are a more effective public safety strategy than building more jails and prisons.

As Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and a member of the Strong Families network, I recently traveled to Georgia to push for Medicaid expansion. Like other governors in red states, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal is still refusing money from the federal government to implement the Affordable Care Act that would include coverage for substance abuse and mental health treatment.

While conservative governors have begun to say they support more effective criminal justice spending, they are also turning down federal Medicaid dollars that could keep people out of jail in the first place with needed drug and mental health treatment dollars. What drives this illogic?

When right-wing conservatives call President Obama "the food-stamp President" and use incendiary slurs like "welfare queen," they portray poor people of color as deserving of punishment (for the alleged fraud committed against the government) and undeserving of social programs. Yet, as Ian Haney Lopez notes in Dog Whistle Politics, although many conservatives link programs like Medicaid to people of color, who do indeed use them, it is white people who are primarily dependent on them. As such, social service cuts hurt all poor and working people.

The good news is that by reducing costly incarceration, states can better afford to make the investments in healthcare and job creation that produce long-term public safety, financial and equity dividends. To be effective, changes to the juvenile and criminal justice system must be coupled with investments in communities that have been devastated by high incarceration rates as well as recession and persistent employment discrimination. In particular, Black and Latino communities are incarcerated at double the rates of their white counterparts, and earn 20 to 50 percent less than their white counterparts, no matter their educational attainment.

States like Washington are proving that it is not investment in prisons that drive down crime, but investment in drug treatment and job creation. Recent studies in Washington state found that extending substance use disorder treatment to low-income people resulted in medical cost savings, reductions in arrest rates and law enforcement savings due to reduced criminal justice system contact.

Instead, in California, AB-2356's call for money for jail construction is based in the same bad logic of past prison building initiatives. During the 40-year status quo of a growing prison boom, Californians experienced a sharp decline in the quality of public education at all levels, as well as rising joblessness, and home bankruptcy. This did not make us safer. While California politicians have been smart enough not to leave money on the table and accept federal Medicaid funds, they don't yet appear poised to use the funds wisely. Lawmakers like Gorell would have the state solve overcrowding in prisons by building more jails. Through smart investment of existing dollars, California could avoid expanding jails and spur economic growth in the health care job sectors that would make Californians healthier and safer.

A much better use of the $1.2 billion dollars proposed for jail expansion comes from the ACLU and Drug Policy Alliance's "Healthcare Not Handcuffs" report. Recommendations include increasing insurance enrollment of people in the Criminal Justice System, making for a more seamless transition when they reenter their communities. Coupled with changes to how the bail process works and implementation of the groundbreaking California Trust Act, lawmakers could safely and drastically reduce the number of people in jail. This is what everyday Californians are calling for when they join groups like Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which is actively waging campaigns against jail expansion in several counties while pushing for local investment in job creation and social services.

Rather than being persuaded by "dog whistle politics" or their lobbyists, and repeating mistakes of the past, California legislators should make policy choices that are more likely to increase revenue, public health, and community safety.

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