Access to the proper programs and treatment options can make a world of difference for someone struggling with mental health or substance abuse disorders. And yet, for the past decades our prisons and jails have seen exponential growth in these vulnerable populations. Even though stays in jail or state prison often exacerbate these individuals’ conditions, we have chosen to allow this tragedy — and all of its associated high costs. These same individuals are then released with parole/probation terms that practically ensure recidivism, and little or no support for overcoming the underlying mental or substance abuse challenges.
As a director for the past seven years at Starting Over Inc., an organization that specializes in transitional housing, community services and community health services, I have witnessed firsthand the unfortunate, often inescapable cycle people go through from their chaotic lives on the streets into jails and back out again. I have watched as community programs on shoe-string budgets have struggled to meet the needs of these growing populations. We’ve got to stop investing more mental health dollars into jails than we do into communities.
When Proposition 47 passed in November 2014, California voters recognized the need for a shift away from lock-‘em-up practices that have failed to reduce recidivism and that have actually left people without the resources needed to get their lives back on track. Prop. 47 reduced six low-level drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors — and requires that all state savings from reduced state incarceration be reinvested back into our communities. That reinvestment starts this year.
The Board of State and Community Corrections has broad discretion in deciding how exactly to distribute Prop. 47 savings and to whom. The BSCC will allocate 65 percent of total state savings for mental health care, substance abuse disorder treatment, supportive housing and other re-entry services. On Tuesday, they will be in San Bernardino from 6-8 p.m. at the East Valley Water District for a public meeting to explain their role and responsibilities as well as to solicit feedback from the community on local needs and priorities.
Participation and collaboration by the community is essential. Prop. 47 savings are relatively limited compared to the need. It is critical that funds are allocated in a thoughtful and efficient way so that California taxpayers get the most out of their call for reform. Spending should reflect the will and intent of the voters. Prop. 47 savings should go to services in the community, not jails.
Savings should be invested in diversion programs that support reentry, reduce recidivism and prevent future involvement in the criminal justice system. Diversion programs and alternative sentencing measures should ensure that the punishment better fits the crime and that the intervention does the most to prevent recidivism. Further, individuals in our community who need help should not have to become entangled with the criminal justice system or face formal charges in order to access services. Gaps in communication and a lack of collaboration across agencies often make it exceedingly difficult for vulnerable populations to get the care and support that they desperately need.
Tuesday’s public meeting is a much-needed opportunity to begin a thoughtful conversation about how to address the public safety and health challenges facing our communities. We should not squander it and risk returning to policies and practices that have locked us in an endless cycle of catch and release.
Vonya Quarles is executive director and co-founder of Starting Over Inc., based in Corona.