California's Attempt at Prison Reform Looking Like an Attempt to Pass the Buck
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The bill signed into law by Gov. Brown is not sentencing reform, but sentencing reform is what is needed, said Dooley-Sammuli. Decriminalization of drug possession is the goal, but legislators aren't ready to embrace that yet, she said. In the meantime, there are other options.
"We want the legislature to reduce the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor," she said. "We don't think the legislators are at the point where they understand the real harms that come to drug users, their families, and their communities because of the criminal penalties for drug use, but we think they do understand there is no reason why the penalties should be as severe as they are. The common ground is that they cost too much money and they do damage because of the burden of a felony conviction."
Advocates are continuing to push for real sentencing reform in California, said Dooley-Sammuli. "This would be a very good year for it," she said. "The critical thing is for the legislature to understand that there are additional cost savings to be had by reducing these low-level felony offenses to misdemeanors, with no threat to public safety, but with positive advantages for reentry success. They think that this realignment solves the problem, but this is not sentencing reform. Incarcerating people in county jails instead of state prisons is not sentencing reform."
But even as reformers continue to fight for sentencing reform, Gov. Brown and the legislature still have to figure out how to pay for the shift from state prisons to county jails. Brown has been pushing for a special election in June to give voters the chance to approve tax increase extensions, but he needs support from Republicans, and that doesn’t appear to be there. If that doesn't happen, it may appear on the November ballot as an initiative, but the tax extensions expire July 1, and a November vote would require voters to increase taxes, not a popular notion these days.
"Funding is not imminent," said Dooley-Sammuli. "But the deal has been struck. If they can get the Republicans or the voters to agree to tax extensions, this is the plan Democrats want for realignment.
And speaking of funding not being imminent, Gov. Brown has proposed zero increases for community-based drug treatment and actual cuts to drug treatment programs within the CDCR. That would affect treatment for both prisoners and parolees.
"He is talking about reducing access to services even as we face a major shift in how corrections works in this state," said Dooley-Sammuli. "That's really stupid."
It has become increasingly evident that California can't afford its drug war. Gov. Brown and the legislature have attempted to craft a fix, but the fix will leave the system just as broken as ever. Now, the state's political elite has to understand that half-measures won't solve the problem. If they're not ready for decriminalization or legalization, it is at least time for de-felonization.