When it comes to how state and local policy-makers seek to support communities, boost the economy, and promote overall well-being, the ability to make choices about budget priorities is one of the most powerful tools they have. As is often said, public budgets are ultimately a statement of what matters to us and the kind of state we want to live in.
In recent years, California has made a number of important policy advances, on the budgetary front and in other areas. But as a new video from Brave New Films highlights, drawing in part on the Budget Center’s analysis, California still spends more than $20 billion a year on incarceration and responding to crime, when you include state and county dollars. These are dollars that could be going to any number of priorities, from boosting access to affordable housing and childcare to enhancing the kinds of services and supports that help prevent people from getting tangled up in the criminal-justice system in the first place.
That spending on incarceration and responding to crime remains so high is especially vexing in light of California’s substantial progress in recent years on reforming its criminal-justice polices in ways that aim to reduce the number of people in the correctional system while also promoting rehabilitation and successful reentry into the community.
For example, in 2011, Governor Brown and legislators approved public safety “realignment,” which transferred from the state to California’s 58 counties the responsibility (and the related funding) for most adults convicted of lower-level felonies. The result has been a sharp drop in the number of state prisoners and parolees, with just a modest increase in the number of people held in county jails.
Following on this, California voters approved further reforms through the statewide ballot: Proposition 47 in 2014 and Proposition 57 in 2016. These measures further reduced California’s reliance on state incarceration, largely through reforms that reduce sentences for certain nonviolent crimes and provide state policymakers with new tools to address ongoing overcrowding in state prisons.
The changes to California’s criminal-justice laws have made a big difference in reducing incarceration. In 2007, the number of adults incarcerated at the state level peaked at 173,000. As of June 2018, this was down to just over 129,000, a drop of about one-quarter.