Brown Better Have My Money! The Prop 47 Savings Controversy


Original Prop 47 Advertisement

Photo Credit: Obey Giant, November 3, 2014

In order to pass Proposition 47, proponents needed to appeal to California voters and taxpayers. Hence, Prop 47 was entitled the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”. The proposition stipulated that its passage would save money due to the reclassification of nine felonies into misdemeanors and that these savings would be sent to local communities to be allocated for specific programs. Counties could use these funds to support substance abuse treatment programs and other mental health services for their parolee and inmate populations. In addition, counties could invest in victims’ services as well as K-12 public school truancy and dropout prevention programs. (PDF page 7).

Today, California voters are wondering if the state is filling its Prop 47 promise, the promise to spend fewer tax dollars on the punishment of nonviolent drug users and petty thieves. Voters wanted to spend more money on schools and mental health services, less money on long-term incarceration. Unfortunately, the state has recently reported that Prop 47 did not save the anticipated funds redirected to local communities.

Click here for details regarding Governor Brown’s contested report

I. Prop 47 was to save money by having fewer expensive trials, decreased jail time, resentencing opportunities, and a decreased impact on state hospitals.

Prop 47 intended to lessen punishments for non-violent offenders, and it would consequently save tax dollars in four ways. (PDF page 34). First, according to the independent and non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, misdemeanor trials are cheaper than felony trials. (PDF page 9). Ideally, the costs to district attorneys, public defenders, and courts would diminish. Second, a sentenced Prop 47 misdemeanant would do less jail time than she would have in the pre-Prop 47 era. Consequently, a county’s cost to house her would decrease. Third, Prop 47 also would reduce populations in both county jails and state prisons if eligible inmates petition for resentencing.  Inmates must be resentenced in order to have their felonies reclassified into Prop 47 misdemeanors. A reclassified criminal record can result shortened sentences and earlier releases, thereby cutting costs for the state and county budgets. Fourth, Prop 47would reduce the number of inmates being committed to state hospitals because there would be fewer felons needing longer-term, medical supervision until they were deemed competent enough to stand felony-length trials. (PDF page 5-6).


       II.  The amount of money saved is in dispute.

Governor Brown and the Legislative Analyst’s Office anticipated that these changes would save $100 million in taxpayer money. However, those anticipated savings are now in dispute. In his 2016-2017 proposed budget, Governor Brown stated that the proposition saved only $29.3 million. (PDF page 7). In contrast, the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s report says that Prop 47 saved about $100 million more (PDF page 3) than what the governor reported. The Analyst’s Office reports that actually a total of $129.3 million was actually saved.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office argues that the governor is underestimating Prop 47’s savings in three areas. First, the governor’s report reveals that during the years 2015-2016, there were 4,700 fewer inmates (PDF page 7) due to the resentencing of current inmates and fewer new felons being incarcerated.   Among these 4,700 inmates, the governor estimates that 4,300 of those inmates would have been in state prison while the remaining 400 would have been placed in out-of-state contracted beds. (PDF page 8). Consequently, Governor Brown estimates that $39 million was saved in state prison beds, while $13 million was saved in 400 fewer out-of-state contracted beds. To manage the prison population, California sends some prisoners to out-of-state prisons and pay “rent” for each prisoner’s beds, which is a contracted bed. The resulting savings were about $52 million. (PDF page 8).

In contrast, the Legislative Analyst’s Office states that 4,700 fewer felons saved California $135 million. (PDF page 9). Currently, California’s state prison population is only 900 inmates below the prison population cap imposed by the United States Supreme Court in 2011. The Analyst’s Office argues that it is more likely that, in order to accommodate this limit and allow for the prison population to fluctuate, all 4,700 inmates would have actually gone to the contracted beds. These contracted beds would have cost the state $135 million as opposed to $52 million.

The second area Prop 47 savings may be found is in the courts, public defenders’ offices, and district attorneys’ offices. Fewer felony arrests result in fewer felony charges being filed and subsequent trials. The Legislative Analyst’s Office states that felony trials demand about six times more judicial time than misdemeanor trials and about three times more courtroom staff. (PDF page 9). Although the governor estimates that $1.7 million has been saved by a reduction of 6,000 overall cases (with 80,000 fewer felony cases and 74,000 more misdemeanor cases) the Analyst’s Office argues that $1.7 million does not account for the decreased time spent on the misdemeanor cases. (PDF page 9). Although the Analyst’s Office wants the judicial branch to recalculate its estimated costs by April 2016, the Analyst’s Office proposes that court costs have diminished by $10 million. Consequently, the Analyst’s Office says the state need not budget the same amount towards the courts as it has done in previous years.

Third, unlike felons, misdemeanants must spend less time state hospitals when they are deemed incompetent to stand trial because misdemeanor trials occur more rapidly. The Analyst’s Office says that the governor estimates that Prop 47 saved state hospitals $8.7 million. (PDF page 8). However, in his 2016-2017 budget, the governor does not delineate savings in any area that was affected by Prop 47. (PDF page 7).

The Legislative Analyst’s Office argues that the proposed prison, court, state hospital budgets should be reduced and some savings should be transferred into the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund. It must not be forgotten that Prop 47 was passed because it stipulated that any savings would be given to local communities, hence its name—the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.”

III.  The City of Los Angeles speaks out

On March 1, 2016, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a resolution demanding Governor Brown to amend his 2016-2017 budget. The Council wants him to allocate roughly $130 million towards drug treatment, mental health, and re-entry programs throughout the state. The Community Coalition, a South Los Angeles advocacy group and major Prop 47 proponent, supported the City Council in pushing the governor to reconsider the distribution of funds.

IV.  A proposed, realistic approach

If Governor Brown is unable to commit more Prop 47 savings to the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, he should at least demonstrate why the estimated savings are not being realized. Like the Legislative Analyst’s Office, Governor Brown should identify each area where Prop 47 saved or did not save money. And both Governor Brown and the Analysts’ Office should differentiate between county jail and state prison savings

However, it may not be realistic to seek savings greater than $29.3 million. It might be difficult to extract Prop 47’s anticipated savings from courts, district attorneys’ offices, and state prisons. Even though the workload may have decreased, the remaining workload may be addressed in a more comprehensive manner now that these institutions are finally receiving adequate funding. For example, Los Angeles district attorneys may now have more manageable caseloads, allowing them to review wrongful convictions or assess more inmate requests for reclassification.

Regarding the cost savings in the prison system, there is the phenomenon that the reduction of the prison population is accompanied by an increase in per capita inmate cost. In the past four years inmate costs have increased from $49,000 to $64,000 per year. Prisons are spending more on healthcare as a result of Brown v. Plata. Prisons are reinstating recidivism reduction programs that had been previously suspended.   And, prisons continue to house inmates out of state.

A focused and transparent data accounting as well as a discussion of realistic expectations regarding savings must be undertaken by the state and local entities. Prop 47 was intended so that local communities could address substance abuse and mental health issues, assist crime victims, and fight drop-out rates and truancy in local schools. In any case, what is needed is additional time for a comprehensive data assessment and realistic public discussion of the long-term effects of Prop 47. The public might be a better watchdog than the state to ensure that Prop 47’s savings are accurately and fairly distributed. It is time that these crucial local programs are appropriately funded so that communities can prevent individuals from becoming trapped into the endless cycle of incarceration.




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