When it comes to California's justice system, 2012 was a big year. After decades of overcrowded prisons that depleted our budgets, the state prison population dropped by more than 25,000—the biggest drop of any state. And by passing Proposition 36, voters overwhelmingly approved scaling back the state's notorious “three strikes” law.
If the state makes key additional changes, 2013 could be even bigger. The time is ripe for a new public safety paradigm—one that replaces our overreliance on costly incarceration with smart justice strategies that increase safety and save resources for prevention, education, and health. But we can only get there if Californians join together to have a new conversation about safety and justice—one that breaks with tired, fear-based rhetoric and focuses on what works to prevent and reduce crime.
The old conversation on safety and justice has not worked. Across the country, the prison crisis arose from decades of “tough on crime” politics in which lawmakers passed hundreds of stringent sentencing requirements, dramatically increasing the number of people incarcerated and how long they serve, especially in the rush to lock up people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.
Yet research shows that increased incarceration is not strongly correlated to reduced crime rates. For example, between 1993 and 2001, New York saw decreases in homicides (69 percent) and violent crime (64 percent) as it was decreasing the number of people in its jails (down 25 percent) and prisons (down 42 percent). During that same period, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Ohio saw similar declines in both crime and incarceration rates.
What is confirmed is that the cost of growing incarceration has contributed to funding declines for health, social services, education, and other ways to build thriving neighborhoods and reduce crime and violence. According to the California Budget Project, since 1981, the percentage of California's general fund that goes to corrections has increased 22 times more than the amount spent for education, and for health and human services.
If we dispel the faulty notion that bloated prisons make us safer, we can set a new standard for what safety looks like. The story of a crime begins not when it occurs but when its causes do: unstable families, drug addiction, unaddressed mental health issues, exposure to violence and trauma at early ages, and a lack of access to health care, education, and jobs.
That means we need to focus on prevention and smart justice. We need to ask different questions: How long are the wait lists at our domestic violence shelters? How many children exposed to violence get quick access to quality therapy and support? How many teenagers are enrolled in quality after-school programs or have after-school jobs? How many of the people struggling with addiction, depression, or mental health issues are enrolled in effective and timely treatment, before circumstances take a turn for the worse? These are the safety indicators that should matter more than the severity of sentences.
Fortunately, many Californians know intuitively that ignoring prevention and community health while emphasizing incarceration is inherently unsafe. Across the political spectrum, large majorities of Californians think that prison-first policies are wasteful, that too many nonviolent people are incarcerated, and that prevention programs deserve more funding. Proposition 36 won in every single California county, and by a two-to-one margin statewide.
Our post-election polling revealed that 74 percent of voters agreed that Prop. 36 is a good start, but we need more changes to make California's prison and justice systems more fair, effective, and less costly. Moreover, 86 percent agreed that more resources should go to preventing crime, and 81 percent support giving judges more discretion to limit the number of nonviolent people imprisoned.
Pollsters call such numbers an “overwhelming majority,” and that is just what we will need to win comprehensive safety solutions in 2013 and beyond.
With Californians ready for a new conversation about public safety, now we need courageous leaders to join in. We're starting to see them. Forward-thinking law enforcement leaders are saying we cannot simply arrest our way out of this problem. Victims of crime are calling for more investments in community wellness. Education and health organizations are joining efforts to prevent violence. Business leaders are exploring the idea that reducing recidivism is important to building a healthy economy.
At the county level in California, many of these leaders are putting their words into action. Public Safety Realignment spurred the state's dramatic prison population reduction, a new state law (passed in response to a federal court mandate to reduce state prison overcrowding) that shifted responsibility for managing people convicted of nonviolent, nonserious offenses from state prisons and parole to county jails and probation.
In response to their new responsibilities, some counties are expanding evidence-based practices and strategies to reduce recidivism. Some are building day reporting centers to keep probationers on track, and investing in treatment programs to address addiction and mental health. Others are expanding pretrial programs to reduce the enormous cost to taxpayers of holding huge numbers of low-risk individuals languishing in jail while they await trial.
These approaches are promising and our innovative local leaders deserve support. But Realignment did not do away with mandatory sentencing requirements; it primarily changed where those sentences are served (county jail instead of state prison). So unless the state as a whole embraces a new approach to safety—and changes the sentencing laws that keep us stuck in the past—we still may end up with overcrowded county jails replacing overcrowded prisons.
With enough public outcry, we can fix our state's broken sentencing rules and build a path for smart justice. We must change laws that rely on incarceration for nonviolent, nonserious crimes, such as drugs and theft, to focus more on community corrections, in which strengthened probation, treatment, and other tools can more effectively hold people accountable, reduce recidivism, and save money for prevention.
Old political challenges may remain, but with a new perspective and new voices beside us, 2013 can indeed be a big year for safety and justice in California.
Lenore Anderson is the director of Californians for Safety and Justice.