Prop 47: Tracking lawmakers' promise of drug treatment over prison

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Proposition 47 has resulted in the release of more than 4,500 people from prison, but advocates warn the state may not deliver on the promise of increased drug rehabilitation and mental health funding.

Why? 

There's a serious disagreement in Sacramento over how much money the prison system saved because of the sentencing reform measure. The legislature will have to settle that dispute as budget talks continue through the spring. 

The ballot initiative, which passed in 2014, reduced most drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, meaning such offenders no longer go to prison. Analysts at the time predicted criminal justice savings would surpass $100 million annually. The measure mandated those savings be earmarked for prevention programs, largely drug and mental health treatment. 

As the number of inmates "come down, so should the money," said Lenore Anderson, coauthor of the measure.

But an early proposals for the 2016-2017 state budget show prison costs are still climbing, and the money California voters actually turn over to prevention may be far less than advocates had hoped.

Governor Jerry Brown's administration calculated Prop. 47 saving at less than $30 million last year– a figure some watchdogs say is neither accurate nor in keeping with the law. 

"There is no perfect correct way to do it," Aaron Edwards, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst's Office, a non-partisan research entity, told legislators last week. 

His office estimates initial savings at $130 million.

"Overall, we think the administration is underestimating savings," Edwards said.

'Talk about recidivism'

Anderson said Proposition 47 came out of a growing consensus among Californians that prisons don't do a good job at rehabilitation.

Charsleen Poe spent four separate stints in prison, each for drug possession and calls rehabilitation in prison a joke. 

One 16-month sentence stemmed from a pat down in which officers found less than $10 worth of crack cocaine in Poe's bra, she said.

When she was released, the state issued her $200 and a cardboard box for her underwear, Bible, toothbrush, toothpaste and a bar of soap. 

"They don’t give you nothing but that $200 and they talk about recidivism. They shouldn’t have invented the word," Poe said.

To her, the system seemed destined fail, the pull of drugs, destined to win out.

Each time she was released, she recalled stepping off the Greyhound bus in Los Angeles – her cardboard box under her arm – and hearing the first greetings home from dope dealers hanging around the station. Poe said the dealers had their eye on what was left of the state's $200.

"All of them know you are coming out of prison because you are carrying a box," Poe said. 

Now, under Prop. 47, people with similar histories as Poe aren't going to prison. But they're not necessarily getting treatment either. 

Where is the money?

Though the administration found the measure eliminated the need for more than 4,500 prison beds, the governor's office primarily based its savings calculation on a 400-unit decline in contract beds, spots in private prisons California pays for to keep prisons from becoming more crowded. 

"The remaining population reductions resulted in fewer inmates being housed in CDCR’s institutions where there are limited possibilities for reduced expenditure," said Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in an email.

Despite the decline in drug offenders in prison, Callison said, prisons are not incurring savings in staffing and other necessary operating costs. For that to happen, he said, the state would need to close a prison. 

Secretary Scott Kernan, who heads the prison system, said cutting money from his budget isn’t feasible. The system's been beleaguered by overcrowding, inadequate mental health and health care, and a host of court orders to improve conditions. 

"So I think that in this challenging environment there is going to be a base line cost," Kernan said.

And, those costs are going up.

Despite 2011's prison realignment, which shifted supervision for lower-level offenders to counties in an effort to stem overcrowding, the prison population is expected to rise over the next year, along with the prison budget.

Early budget proposals up the corrections budget to $10.5 billion in 2016-2017 - higher than the year before realignment went into effect. Cutting into the budget now, Kernan said, could compromise court orders.

The state's obligated to provide "a constitutional level" of care, he said.

Settling savings dispute

It’s up to the legislature to settle the Prop. 47 savings dispute. Last week, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who represents south Los Angeles, told colleagues he wants more money for prevention programs.

Most of the money is likely to be redirected to residential drug treatment and mental health services. Another 25 percent is earmarked for truancy and dropout prevention, and 10 percent is for the state's victims compensation fund.

"There were some big claims made early on in the proposition," Jones-Sawyer said, and the administration's savings allocation is "not even close to it."

Legislators have until summer to decide what savings to attribute to the law. 

Even if the higher calculation prevails, drug treatment money will be spread out over California's 58 counties in the form of competitive grants.  Many of these communities aren't likely to see any funding at all the first year.

Drug treatment isn't a guaranteed cure. Relapse is common, as are deaths from overdose.

Poe struggled to shake her dependence for decade even as friends fatally succumbed to their addiction. 

"A person that does drugs has to have leader out of that," she said.

For her it was God - she resolved to put it in his hands when she was admitted to a residential drug treatment program. 

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