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If California wants real criminal justice reform, this is the next step

Gov. Jerry Brown, who just signed his final bills into law, leaves a remarkable legacy on criminal justice.

Forty years ago, he enacted “determinate” sentencing – the first of numerous stringent laws that led to decades of sharp increases in incarceration. In his final term, he became California’s most reform-minded governor on criminal justice.

His leadership brings sorely needed relief to what had been a prison overcrowding crisis that wasted billions of dollars and failed to stop cycles of crime. Emboldened by voter-approved ballot initiatives calling for more rehabilitation and less incarceration, state lawmakers approved an unprecedented number of justice reform measures this year: the elimination of money bail, expanded judicial discretion in sentencing, more diversion for people with mental illness and others.

Until very recently, these changes were unthinkable when legislators steered clear of appearing soft on crime. But changing laws is only a partial expression of priorities.

How money is spent is the bigger fish to fry. And state expenditures on imprisonment have barely budged.

The stubbornly high bill doesn’t just take money from other priorities. It doesn’t advance the intent of those expenditures: public safety.

California spends more than $12 billion a year on state prisons, a figure that keeps growing despite the state now being a national leader in reduced incarceration. That’s a 500 percent increase in prison spending since 1981, far outpacing education, health and all other budget items. California now spends more general fund dollars on prisons than on CSU and UC combined.

But these expenditures do not align with what works to reduce crime. We know many of the drivers of crime: mental health crises, substance abuse, unaddressed trauma and housing and economic instability, especially when these factors are combined. Most of these factors are exacerbated by lengthy incarceration, not resolved by it.

Research decisively shows that community stability is far more important. There are models that work. We should be investing in crisis assistance centers, in restorative justice and in programs that combine housing and treatment for chronically homeless people cycling in and out of both jails and emergency rooms. The list of solutions goes on. They are just not funded at the level to meet communities’ public safety needs.

The fact is that California’s imbalanced public safety investments ignore the cycle of crime at best, and at worst, subsidize it. The window of opportunity around criminal justice reform needs to open wider and start changing financial priorities, too.

Now is the time for California leaders to turn the changes in law into a strategy to replace the bloated prisons budget with increased investments into community well-being as the state’s central approach to public safety.

Lenore Anderson, a former assistant district attorney in San Francisco, is executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and can be contacted at

Lenore Anderson
The Sacramento Bee

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