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Cities ask Sacramento: Where are the savings from Prop 47?

by AirTalk

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File: A Los Angeles Police Department officer on a bicycle patrols the parking lot of Dodger Stadium prior to the home opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

About a year-and-a-half ago, California voters passed Proposition 47. It reduced to misdemeanors most drug possessions and property crimes of $950 or less and allowed some to petition for re-sentencing and release. It's been credited with reducing California’s prison population by 4,700 people so far.

The move followed state "realignment," a policy that which transferred thousands of offenders from state prisons to local jails and released many others in order to address California's overcrowded prisons, which were so bad that the federal government sanctioned the state.

During the campaign, both the Legislative Analyst’s Office and California’s Department of Finance estimated that the savings from Prop 47 would near $100 million each year — but Gov. Brown’s 2016-17 budget estimated Prop 47 savings at only $29.3 million. Today, city leaders from around the state are in Sacramento to ask where those proposed savings have gone.

California Department of Finance's Amy Jarvis told AirTalk that the budget calculations were done before the state began implementing their policy of "prison realignment," which changed the math for what Prop 47 would do.

"The three-judge panel overseeing California's prison population ordered several population reduction measures that weren't anticipated when we initially did the estimate on Prop 47 savings," she said. That policy helped throw off the state's assessment of how much the proposition would save.

Would more rehab prevent recidivism?

Former San Diego Police Chief  Bill Landsdowne said that he was surprised at the resistance that he's seen to getting people help following Prop 47. The former chief was one of the official proponents of Prop 47. 

He added that the proposition was designed to help people get assistance when it comes to mental health problems, drug addiction, alcoholism and to make sure kids stay out of the prison system.

Landsdowne said that the program has worked in the 23 other states that have similar programs, and said that some adjustments still need to be made.

"Clearly, the treatment portion needs to be there," Landsdowne said. He added that they may need to follow the example of some counties and change arrest procedures.

"We need a risk assessment," he said. "Not everybody needs to go to jail, but some people, because they're in the throes of drug addiction, need some jail time to really work with them to get the assistance and help that they need."

More stick needed for misdemeanors?

Landsdowne said he disagreed with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck that Prop 47 had harmed the state's drug courts by removing the incentive for addicts to opt for treatment. Still, he agreed that there needs to be a better system in place to deal with those struggling with addiction.

"Right now, the system is set up for felonies," he said. "If you commit a felony, you are looking at one to three years in prison, or you go into a program. But it doesn't apply to misdemeanors."

In San Diego, Landsdowne said there were problems with homeless people being constantly re-arrested. That put a huge burden on the medical and jail systems as many of them had addiction and mental health problems. The city ended up changing their policy; if someone is arrested multiple times for being under the influence of alcohol, they now go to a judge who gives them the choice between a year in jail or a treatment program. Most take the treatment program, Landsdowne said.

"That's not offered to people with drug issues right now. It should be," he said.

Marc Debbaudt, president of L.A. County's Association for Deputy District Attorneys, disagreed with that assessment.

"All [Prop 47] was designed to do was release drug addicts and thieves. It wasn't designed to engage in any rehabilitation whatsoever," Debbaudt said.

Debbaudt said that realignment and Prop 47 were responsible for California's rise in crime and called the title of the proposition — "The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act" — "duplicitous."

"He's not representing the real stick of a misdemeanor. There is none under our system anymore, especially after realignment, where state prison felons were transported and re-housed in county jails, and they had to make room for them," Debbaudt said. "For a person whose job is to hold accountable criminals, he doesn't even admit he made a mistake, he doesn't admit that his crime has gone up in his own city, and all he does is continue to sell something that is failing and is a disaster."

Landsdowne said other issues factored into the recent increase in crime, including understaffing and poverty.

Where are the resources? 

Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson told AirTalk that few resources followed Prop 47 into L.A. communities. State assistance has been "extremely low, much less than any of us had anticipated," he said.

Harris-Dawson said that members of the City Council, the mayor and the city attorney had been supportive of the proposition "because we believed what we were being told when folks said the savings would be around $100 million."

Harris-Dawson said that the state is easing its own burden and liability but leaving the city to bear the brunt of expenses.

"The point is, folks have to be dealt with. If a person is struggling with drug addiction, there has to be treatment — and treatment readily available, not treatment that you say, 'Oh, nine weeks from now,' or 'three months from now,'" Harris-Dawson said. "We totally agree that they don't need a prison cell, but we do believe that they need services."

While crime rates have ticked upwards recently, there haven't been any non-anecdotal evaluations attributing any uptick to Prop 47, professor of criminology at UC Irvine Charis Kubrin told AirTalk.

Meanwhile, realignment has had a negligible impact on overall crime and no impact on violent crime, according to a recent study Kubrin edited in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Kubrin said that this was unsurprising given that those who were eligible for release under realignment were eligible due to the nonviolent nature of their crimes. However, there has been a small increase in property crime, mostly related to auto theft.

One year that these prisoners served in lock-up prevented about 1.2 auto thefts per year, according to the study, saving close to $12,000 in crime-related costs, Kubrin said. Given that it costs upwards of $60,000 per year to incarcerate someone, the cost-benefit analysis may seem to favor realignment, according to Kubrin.

Now that it's been a year and a half since Prop 47, Kubrin said that it's the time to start doing data analysis about its effects, as it's usually best to wait one to two years after a policy is put in place.

Guests:

Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, representing District 8 in South L.A.; he’s testifying in Sacramento Wednesday about Prop 47 savings

Amy Jarvis, assistant program budget manager with California’s Department of Finance

Charis Kubrin, professor of criminology at UC Irvine; she edited the findings of a recent study on realignment in the Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science

Bill Lansdowne, former chief of the San Diego Police Department, retired in 2014. He’s also been a police chief in San Jose and Richmond. Along with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, Lansdowne was one of Prop 47’s official proponents

Marc Debbaudt, president, Association for Deputy District Attorneys (of L.A. County)

This story has been updated.

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