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COVID-19 gives California a chance to overhaul public safety. Will Gov. Newsom take it?

Earlier this month, in response to grave threats posed by the spread of COVID-19, California officials halted admissions into state prisons and revealed plans to quickly release 3,500 people. Within a matter of weeks, our state’s prison population will likely decline by 10,000 people, representing the fastest decline in California history and the largest in the nation.

The Newsom administration’s important actions to stop the spread in prisons will save lives. What happens in the justice system next is crucial: It could be the difference between temporary relief for thousands and permanent relief for millions.

We must expand and make permanent incarceration reductions, expand reentry assistance to support safe releases and stability and reallocate the savings back to local communities for programs proven to prevent crime from occurring in the first place.

By laying the foundation for a complete overhaul of our public safety system, from a focus on crime response to crime prevention, the state can save more lives today and for generations to come. Expanding safe releases from prison to further prevent the spread also paves the way for longer-term resource reallocation from prison spending to unmet community safety needs.

First, if ever there were a time to stop locking up people for too long, it’s now. Part of the reason COVID-19 threatens to spread like wildfire inside prisons is because their facilities are packed. Even with the recent actions, there are still 122,000 people in our prisons, double the prison incarceration rate in the 1980s before California prison building picked up speed.

This is toxic for public health and unnecessary for public safety. Despite strong contrary evidence, the justice system remains stuck on the falsehood that long sentences stop crime. Research shows that longer sentences do not reduce recidivism more than shorter ones – and may actually increase recidivism. Recently, after years of study, national experts concluded that sentences could be shortened by at least 25 percent – across the board – without impacting safety.

Unhealthy conditions for both prison staff and residents would decline, and public safety would not be compromised by expanding eligibility for immediate release, including those that are elderly, have underlying health conditions or are low risk to recidivate.

Second, expanding reentry assistance can support safe releases. In the context of an unprecedented crisis, prior bureaucratic approaches to reentry should be abandoned. Flexible, expanded funding for reentry, cash and rental assistance so people can immediately shelter, and refocusing parole on stabilizing those coming home will expand and improve releases.

Third, our state must face the fact that, today, millions of Californians are vulnerable in part because runaway prison spending has eaten proportionally more and more of taxpayer dollars. California spends more than $11 billion dollars annually on prisons, a 500 percent increase over 30 years. This dwarfs other critical investments. Over the past 20 years, for example, prison spending has grown 65 percent faster than spending on hospitals.

Money that could have been going to crime prevention has been squandered on ineffective imprisonment. A decisive body of research has shown that zeroing in on community health, not incarceration, more effectively prevents crime. Yet, many thousands struggle with untreated mental health, substance abuse and trauma – some of the well-known drivers of crime as well as drivers of health vulnerabilities. Less than 10 percent of people struggling with substance abuse and only 1 out of 6 people struggling with mental illness attain treatment.

The gap between what communities need to stop crime cycles and where public safety investments are focused is on track to get worse with COVID-19. Frontline violence prevention, trauma recovery and reentry service providers, operating without adequate resources before, are now struggling without sufficient support or technology.

This can be reversed. With the safe release of a few thousand more people, and maintaining these declines permanently, California could come out of this crisis with the ability to do the previously impossible: close a prison. Shuttering a prison could save $300 million dollars, money that could be reallocated to crime prevention: Providing block grants for communities struggling with crime; requiring local health and safety systems to plan together and share data; scaling up crisis assistance, and more.

In the past decade, California reduced incarceration more than any state in the nation. California reforms, including voter-enacted measures like Propositions 47 and 57, led to a 25 percent drop in incarceration. Statewide crime rates remain at historic lows and new programs are showing promise.

Yet, that important progress has yet to translate into a fundamentally new approach to safety. Preventing crime and preventing the spread of a virus requires meeting the same community needs. Instead of locking communities out of health, and locking our public resources up in prisons, it’s time to start making prevention the focus of our justice resources and attention – for both public health and public safety.

Anderson is president of Californians for Safety and Justice, member of Governor Newsom’s Behavioral Health Task Force and co-author of Proposition 47. She previously served as an Assistant District Attorney in San Francisco.

Lenore Anderson
The Sacramento Bee

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