Budget Deal Has Major Pros and Cons for Reentering Community

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Today we want to let you know about some key reforms that happened last weekend. California legislators approved a budget deal that has both positive and negative effects on people in reentry and the criminal justice system. While the legislature allocated millions of dollars to prison expansion, which we find dismaying, it also allocated millions of dollars to reentry programs and lifted the drug felony ban for CalFresh (food stamps) and CalWorks — big wins for people in reentry!

The changes to CalWorks and CalFresh eligibility mean that many more families in need will have a safety net that keeps them out of extreme poverty. Here’s some background to clarify what this change means: CalWorks is a statewide program that assists low-income families with short-term cash aid to supplement them with basic necessities such as housing, food, and utilities. CalFresh, known as the Food Stamp Program, assists individuals with electronic benefits that are allotted towards food purchases. Under federal law, anyone with a drug felony conviction can be denied access to public benefits such as CalWorks or CalFresh. Each state, however, can either opt out of this ban, OR impose their own harsher conditions. Today, California has in place a lifetime ban for people with a drug conviction that involved the sale or manufacture of drugs. For everyone else with a drug conviction who did not sell or manufacture, they can enroll in a drug treatment program in order to be eligible for CalWorks and CalFresh. Under this new proposed law, California will stop excluding certain groups from vital benefits that can help them move forward with their lives.

The new budget also set forth some promising reforms and investments in reentry: $8 million was allocated to community based organizations for reentry services, $2.5 million to community based organizations for in-custody programming that support reentry, and $2 million to programs that expand access to licenses and official I.D.’s for people on parole.

In addition, the proposed law includes statements recognizing that public support for services – including transitional housing, mental health, and substance abuse treatment – can make a huge difference in allowing people to reintegrate successfully into their communities, reduce recidivism and promote public safety. The proposed law notes that support for these services has been shown to achieve these goals in other states, and that now is the time for California to invest in what works. Specifically, under the proposed law, the state “may” (subject to funding) attempt to provide these services to people released under Prop. 36 who are not subject to parole or post-release community supervision. Although the law is vague on the details of how this will work, the basic intention is a sign of progress. It’s certainly refreshing to see the state moving toward a supportive reentry process, investing in programs that can create sustainable change.

Now for the downsides of the new budget: While the state is investing $12.5 million into reentry support, that amount is minuscule compared to the amount it will spend on prison and jail facilities: $500 million for the construction of new county jails and $300 million to expand infrastructure capacity at existing prison facilities. Why is so much money being spent on prison and jail expansion? Is this spending necessary? We don’t have all the answers, but here is some background: after Governor Brown implemented “Realignment,” we began to see the shifting of incarcerated individuals from overcrowded prisons into local county jails. This is why we now have overcrowding in jails —facilities that need to be expanded and brought up to constitutional standards for the people incarcerated in them. While some state funding should absolutely go to making certain facilities safe and healthy for people to live in, we’re saddened by the proportion of money spent on jail and prison expansion relative to reentry/ support services—$800 million: $12.5 million. While a baseline amount of money should be spent to bring jails and prisons to constitutional standards and to ensure that people in them are healthy and safe, more money should be spent on violence prevention programs, drug treatment programs, public education, adult education, family support, reentry services, and other forms of support for vulnerable communities. Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) Statewide Coordinator Emily Harris said in a statement that, in their estimation, not much has changed:

“In the face of community and court pressure for sweeping criminal justice reform, Governor Brown and the legislature have made only small changes to their ongoing commitment to mass incarceration. For years we have seen our elected representatives baulk at opportunities presented by realignment and the Court’s prison crowding order to abandon failed policies that have imprisoned more and more Californians over the last several decades. Unfortunately, this year is not very different.”

All in all, the budget deal, although still awaiting Governor Brown’s approval, brings a mix of pros and cons for currently and formerly incarcerated people, and for our state as a whole. While some money is being devoted to supportive services, it certainly is not enough—especially compared to how much the state is spending on prison and jail expansion. Next year, we hope to see more robust spending  on building a larger safety net that ensures healthier outcomes for at-risk youth and reentering citizens. We believe it is important to spend in these areas rather than growing the facilities that often increase violence, anti-social behavior, and mental illness beyond what is necessary to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of the currently incarcerated.

The proposed lift on the ban for CalWorks and CalFresh are enormous victories, though, that we wanted to celebrate here on the blog! This change will have huge positive effects on the lives of so many individuals and families across the state.

Olivia Cahue-Diaz, Root & Rebound Summer Intern and Kony Kim, Root & Rebound Law Clerk

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