California’s budget negotiations are an exercise in high stakes tradeoffs. And as deep cuts to our schools, hospitals and all sorts of vital services continue to take their toll, the ACLU is challenging "Oakland locals" to get a real-time look at how things would be different if prisons and jails were placed at the center of the chopping block.
Our state spends nearly $50,000 each year for every adult we lock up in state prison and about $25,000 each year for every adult we lock up in a county jail like Santa Rita. And every dollar spent on prisons and jails is a dollar not spent on education, social services or other priorities.
Each of us who pays income taxes, property taxes or sales tax here subsidizes incarceration. And when incarceration keeps dangerous people from harming others, many of us feel like it’s a good investment. But public policy has strayed from this logic.
For the past several decades, California has stepped up the rate at which we incarcerate, locking up more and more people, particularly people convicted of low-level crimes and people with addiction problems. Many of these people present little or no threat to public safety.
We also incarcerate thousands of people who have not been convicted of any crime - they are waiting for their trial date to arrive and do not have money for bail. Many of these people are locked up not because they are dangerous but because they are poor. (Eighty-three percent of the people Alameda County jail last year had yet to be sentenced.)
Locking up people who are not dangerous - as well as people whose main problem is drug addiction or poverty - is an enormous waste of our tax dollars. And in a financial crisis, such waste is tragic.
This tragedy is of epic proportions for people of color. Unequal treatment in the criminal justice system - especially in drug law enforcement - is one of the primary drivers of inequality in our society today. A higher proportion of African Americans are incarcerated in California than were blacks in Apartheid South Africa. Latinos are now the largest group incarcerated in California state prisons. The criminal justice system selectively incarcerates to deal with mental health, drug abuse and economic and social problems that can never be solved simply by locking more people behind bars.
The hopeful news is that the realignment of the criminal justice system that began last year has begun to slow California’s state prison incarceration rate slightly; fewer people sentenced for nonviolent crimes are being sent to prison. But, on whole, we’re still locking up far too many people for far too long.
If realignment is implemented as intended by the governor, more people will be directed into drug treatment programs that have a solid track record of success. If they recover and stay on their feet, they will be able to step out of the revolving door of incarceration.
We still have a long way to go to change the system so that our tax dollars are spent wisely and people are treated fairly. But as more and more people realize that the war on drugs and the “lock ‘em up” mentality have outlived their time, public opinion is shifting to smarter approaches to crime prevention and rehabilitation. Approaches that rely more on evidence and less on fear.
Are there policy choices on the table that would result in less incarceration spending and more education spending for Oakland?
Yes. And I’m inviting you to make them.
The ACLU has created a new web app called Think Outside the Box. The web app puts you in the driver’s seat. You get to weigh the pros and cons of a short series of important policy choices and put our money where your priorities lie. The choices at hand are the very ones we ask our legislators to weigh.
As you use the app, you’ll learn about what got our criminal justice system into the current mess and about ways we can start to climb out of it. And, you’ll get to see what other people think.
If you trim criminal justice dollars, you can trade the savings for investments in child care and preschool, K-12 education and CalGrants for college students.
Are you game?
The exercise may be virtual but the tradeoffs are real.
If we can think outside the box, we can make a strong case to legislators that the time has come to raise the bar on what we expect from our criminal justice system, and lower the amount we spend on it.
Edtitor's note: We welcome community members who wish to share their views.