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Harnessing the Power of the Public for Bold Change

Today marks the five-year anniversary of the founding of Californians for Safety and Justice, an advocacy organization seeking to replace prison and justice system waste with smarter safety solutions that save public dollars, in the state with the largest corrections system in the nation.

We began this journey with a fundamental belief: Californians of all walks of life were ready for large-scale change. The incarceration-first approaches of the “tough-on-crime” era were not only bad for public safety and bad for budgets they were also no longer popular with the public.

Then, like now, California was at a crossroads. While litigation and budget crises had already set changes in motion, the $10 billion per year corrections system price tag (up 300% from thirty years ago) remained in tact, along with severe racial disparities, increased spending on county jails and a lack of support for prevention in the communities hardest hit by crime.

So five years ago we set out to harness the power of the public to win bold change. We aimed to grow a broad-based movement – engaging new and diverse allies and joining with philanthropy and community leaders to envision new safety solutions that expand prevention, rehabilitation and community health.

Since then, a lot has changed. Our political action team joined with law enforcement leaders, grassroots leaders, faith leaders, business leaders and more to win two major criminal justice reform ballot initiatives in just two years, Propositions 47 and 57. Our Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice network has grown to become the largest network of crime victims in the country, and we’ve helped dozens of local jurisdictions advance innovations from enrolling justice populations in healthcare to reentry jobs, trauma recovery and more.

Today, there are about 15,000 fewer people incarcerated in California’s prisons and jails and eight new trauma recovery centers supporting underserved victims across the state. More than one million Californians can remove old nonviolent felonies from their records to reduce barriers to stability, and more than $68 million dollars are being reallocated from the prisons budget to local prevention and treatment. State corrections leaders now have discretion to incentivize prisoner rehabilitation, and juveniles no longer face prosecutor direct file into adult criminal court. The majority of counties have enacted strategies to enroll system-involved people into healthcare and Los Angeles established the first-of-its-kind task force to help people with records find jobs.

A more balanced approach to public safety is starting to emerge. But we have further to go, and the stakes have never been higher. Despite continued historic lows in crime rates, many of the old debates about punishment are being rehashed around the nation. Those who seek to rollback progress continue presenting a false choice between reduced crime and reduced incarceration.

Rather than rest on the gains we’ve made, now is the time to double down. We must commit to go further in our efforts to abandon ineffective justice policies that deplete resources and make matters worse. Here are just a few of the needed reforms California is poised to achieve.

When it comes to California’s crowded county jails, the large pretrial population is the elephant in the room. Too many people languish in jail waiting for their court dates because they cannot afford to pay bail – amounts that are five times the national average. Replacing money bail with smart and safe pretrial community supervision would save jail space and money.

Despite consensus that incarceration cannot stop cycles of chronic illness and nonviolent crime, our state sorely lacks the prevention and treatment infrastructure needed to address addiction and mental illness. California must scale substance abuse and mental health treatment up to match the scale of the problem. The bloated prisons budget is one place to look for resources to achieve this.

We must eliminate post-release restrictions that prevent stability. Giving people a fair shot at a second chance means rethinking the more than 4,000 post-release restrictions (over half of which are job related) facing Californians with criminal records. Families and communities fare better when dignity and opportunity are provided to all of our community members.

We must also continue reducing incarceration. While recent reforms have helped, too many Californians still remain incarcerated for no good public safety reason. Increasing judicial discretion, improving preparation for release, and shortening unnecessarily long sentences can continue safely reducing incarceration and costs.

Finally, and most important, we must stop pretending that growing incarceration protects crime survivors – it does not. Low-income communities and communities of color continue to bear the brunt of cycles of crime and violence and have the least access to crime prevention, treatment and trauma recovery-investments that more effectively stop the cycle and help victims heal.

The progress of the last five years demonstrates the public’s strong desire for bold reform and represents an important tipping point in safety and justice debates. Voters no longer want bumper sticker slogans or one-size-fits-all policies that fail to make our communities safe and waste billions. They want common-sense changes that cost less and work better.

We’ve shown that broad-based, diverse coalitions have the power to achieve remarkable victories. Five years from now, on our 10-year anniversary, I hope we will look back on this period as just the beginning of our journey towards a safer and more just California.

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