Justice Committee co-chairs call for funding priorities change to ease prison crowding, improve public safety

by Carlos Alcalá and Stephanie Burri

'Parole politics' by Marcus Bedford Jr.
“Parole Politics” – Art: Marcus A. Bedford Jr., K-00220, DVI, P.O. Box 400, Tracy CA 95378

Sacramento – Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano and Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr., co-chairs of the Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment, have issued recommendations to Speaker John A. Pérez, based on the committee’s seven hearings held in 2013-14.

Key recommendations include:

  • Boost recidivism reduction funding, including funds for veterans and people with mental illness.
  • Eliminate barriers to success for those leaving prison by facilitating the acquisition of basic IDs, medical eligibility and public assistance. Without these, many return to crime.
  • Re-establish or create employment and programs that safely reintegrate new releases into the work world.
  • Focus facilities funding on rehabilitation.
  • Promote programs for diversion and collaborative courts that have proven their ability to reduce the return to crime by focusing on addiction recovery and other rehabilitative strategies.
  • Expand programs that allow juvenile offenders to mature away from crime, instead of leaving them in facilities that function as criminal secondary education.

The bi-partisan committee was charged with looking for practices that could be adopted or expanded to improve California’s justice system. Goals included reducing the prison population to constitutional levels, reducing recidivism and improving public safety and wellbeing in communities impacted by high numbers of residents sent to or returning from prison.

'Cops on Parole Board' art by Marcus Bedford Jr.
“Cops on Parole Board” – Art: Marcus A. Bedford Jr., K-00220, DVI, P.O. Box 400, Tracy CA 95378

“We learned a lot from these hearings, with the big lesson being that these problems have solutions,” said Ammiano. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a smaller inland city or a big urban county, there are practices that are working right now to cut recidivism and reduce the prison population.”

“I’m especially interested in rehabilitation as a way to improve lives and reduce criminal recidivism,” said Jones-Sawyer. “There has been too much emphasis on putting people away and not enough on changing the behaviors and conditions that led them to criminal actions. California should invest in the things that will make a difference.”

The co-chairs’ letter of recommendations to Speaker Pérez is intended to influence budget discussions and spur legislation. In addition, the chairs intend to continue to hold hearings. The letter outlines their intention to hold a hearing on sentencing reform in summer.

“California needs to step back and look at what it’s doing in sentencing, because a lot of it doesn’t make sense,” Ammiano said. “Over the years, we have increased penalties for things without looking at whether those really are the more serious crimes and what impact those sentences are having on our justice system. We need to be smarter about how we approach punishing crime.”

Carlos Alcalá, communications director for Assemblymember Ammiano, can be reached at Carlos.Alcala@asm.ca.gov. Stephanie Burri is legislative director for Assemblymember Jones- Sawyer.