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Invest in prevention instead of prison expansion

For decades, California built prisons and jails to warehouse people struggling with addiction, mental illness and homelessness. That may have effectively kept these problems out of the public’s view – but it did not solve them.

Instead of investing in health solutions for health problems, we’ve spent billions on incarceration and destabilized vulnerable communities in the process.

Today, most everyone agrees: Incarceration does not stop cycles of chronic illness and nonviolent crime. People are released unreformed and cut off from stability, only to cycle back in. Resources are squandered and taxpayers foot the bill.

When voters enacted Proposition 47, which changed some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors and required prison savings reallocation, they sent a clear message: Justice resources should focus on violent, serious crime, instead of being wasted on problems prisons and jails are ill-equipped to solve.

Critics say law enforcement now lacks options to address low-level crime, and the measure put chronically ill people on the street instead of jail. That’s misleading. (“Proposition 47: A failure to learn history’s lesson”; editorials, Dec. 24)

First, the justice system continues to have options for accountability. Misdemeanors have a maximum penalty of a year in jail, multiple convictions can equal multiple years. Sentences can also include supervised probation, community service or required treatment. The fact that many are not accustomed to these options is no excuse for failing to adapt.

Second, Proposition 47 may be illuminating a decades-old problem of failed priorities, but it did not cause it. The annual prisons budget ballooned to $10.6 billion and California spent $2.7 billion on jail expansion since 2007.

Instead of stopping cycles of addiction and crime, taxpayers essentially subsidize it. Prison growth starved investment opportunities into prevention and dug a deep hole: incarceration or nothing. Proposition 47 and other reforms are helping us start to claw our way out.

Voters no longer want to sweep this cycle under the rug. Now is the time to adapt local practices, and finally – and aggressively – invest in a prevention and treatment infrastructure that can reach millions of people that have needed it, for generations. As California’s historic prison expansion demonstrates, when the political will exists, the money flows.

Lenore Anderson is executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. 

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