Building a Budget for Humanity in California

Instead of funding affordable homes, we are housing over 160,000 people in over-crowded prisons and jails. Instead of funding In-Home Support Services, we are building prison hospitals. Instead of building community colleges, we are building county jails.

by Eric Moon

O n March 29, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide alliance of 40 organizations, launched their “Budget for Humanity,” demanding that California prioritize vital social services over prison spending. The northern California event was held at the San Francisco location of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

The demands of the Budget for Humanity are clear: California must stop all prison and jail construction, reduce prison overcrowding, stop cuts to our safety net programs, and invest in California’s future. Without that, the $9.1 billion yearly prison budget will continue to bankrupt California’s ability to provide education, jobs, health care, housing, and transportation for everyone in the state.

The CURB Budget for Humanity puts forward a series of recommendations to reduce California’s prison population, including amending or repealing the three strikes law, expanding medical parole, utilizing compassionate release, and reforming parole and drug sentencing laws.

The CURB Budget for Humanity is a grassroots public response to Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposals for corrections “realignment” (having County jails take some of the state’s prisoners) and to an imminent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Coleman and Plata v. Brown, challenging prison overcrowding.

“Realignment could be an opportunity to reduce California’s prison overcrowding,” points out Campaign Director for Critical Resistance Lisa Marie Alatorre. “However, the Legislature and Governor Brown continue to promise 7.7 billion dollars for AB 900, the largest prison construction project in the world. We need housing, health care, education, and support services for folks coming home — not more prison and jail cells.”

“All of Us or None is signing on to the Budget for Humanity Campaign because we can’t sit by and watch California build more prisons and jails while vital social services that our members depend on are being cut.” says Linda Evans, organizer with All of Us or None, another CURB member organization.

The March 29 event included an update from attorney Ernest Galvan of Rosen, Bien and Galvan LLP, on the landmark Coleman/Plata lawsuit, followed by interactive exercises to enable representatives of the CURB organizations to get to know each other. Coleman/Plata incorporates human rights appeals stretching back decades. A 1986 Supreme Court decision ruled that overcrowding itself was not unconstitutional, but Coleman/Plata has successfully argued that resulting deterioration of prisons’ medical and mental health resources is.

California faces a crisis both budgetary and humanitarian.

The image of a budget is an appealing one and has been used before in social policy critiques. It encourages voters to remember that tax dollars represent choices among shared values — that every dollar spent constructing and staffing prisons and jails, and paying decades of interest on bonds to build those, is a dollar lost forever to more productive uses. California’s last decade has seen cuts in social programs and increases in public classroom sizes and in state college tuition — and, during those same years, increased funding for prisons and punishment.

A budget lists income as well as expenses. California’s perpetual fiscal woes over the last few years arise from “no new taxes” legislators exacerbating the forced competition between prisons and more socially positive needs. Until recently, fiscal conservatives were the very politicians most supportive of prison expansion. “Public safety” and “tough on crime” were catchy slogans that were paired paradoxically with “no new taxes,” despite the clear contradiction of these goals.

Facing a $26 billion deficit, and with revenue streams narrowed, we arrive at some strange choices. Against what social goals do we balance choices like these, proposed for California’s 2011-12 budget? We’re facing $1.5 billion cut from CALWorks, $1.7 billion cut from Medi-Cal, $486 million from In-Home Support Services, $1 billion from the UC and CSU systems, and $750 million from Childcare and Development Programs

But our State budget contains even stranger humanitarian contradictions. The long-term outcomes and implications of prisons and of schools could hardly be more different — as if our body politic were a household in which we tried running both our furnace and our air-conditioner on high, all the time. To the extent that school cuts contribute to rising drop-out rates, they directly stoke the roaring growth of the prison system.

Teachers, parents, and youth workers have come to identify and decry a “school-to-prison pipeline” — third-graders unable to read at grade level endure until high school, then drop out into unemployment and mischief, then accumulate a criminal record. Certainly anyone who visits or works in our prisons can confirm that many more prisoners need literacy training than college courses. (And we can “afford” less of either. In the last few years, prisons themselves have seen their own education cuts, with functions beyond warehousing bodies being shrunk again and again.)

The image of a budget invites voters to think rationally about what we really want to do, with our shared resources. How important is it, that we be able to imprison forever every person who commit three felonies? Is it more, less, or equally important that families of students get to attend, proudly, their third academic commencement ceremonies? It is time to understand the choices we have been making, deliberately or unintentionally, and to choose and spend wisely and well.

We are in a state of budgetary and humanitarian crisis. While California remains the wealthiest state in the country, our social safety net and education system is vanishing before our eyes. The State has sacrificed programs that support working families, in exchange for tax policies that favor the very wealthy and the largest and least effective prison system in the world.

While this crisis hurts everyone, poor and working-class people and communities of color bear the brunt of our budget failures. Instead of funding affordable homes, we are housing over 160,000 people in over-crowded prisons and jails — and shipping another 10,000 people to privately run prisons in other states. Instead of funding In-Home Support Services and community medical and mental healthcare, we are building prison hospitals. Instead of building community colleges, we are building county jails.

We can and must change California’s priorities. We cannot solve our budget crisis or build stable communities without stopping prison construction, reducing the number of people in prison, and using the saved resources to stop cuts to education and our vanishing social safety net.

We have the solutions we need, but we must act now. In past years, prisons have been the exception for budget cuts. Now, polls show 70 percent of Californians favor spending cuts in prisons and corrections.

This budget crisis provides an urgent opportunity to dramatically shift the state’s funding priorities away from policing and imprisonment and toward education, healthcare, jobs, and housing. Gov. Brown’s budget proposal threatens yet another round of devastating cuts to vital programs. Instead, we can re-unite families, strengthen communities, and save billions of dollars by supporting people coming home from prison and implementing basic changes to parole policy and sentencing laws.

California, #1 in Prisons. From Center for the Study of Political Graphics

California, #1 in Prisons. From Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

CURB’s basic recommendations are:

Stop all prison construction

AB900, a June 2007 backroom political deal, authorized the largest prison and jail construction splurge in history. Implementing AB900 will cost taxpayers $12 billion, to construct 53,000 new prison and county jail beds. AB900 is due to “sunset” in 2017 — if we can force the sun to set on AB 900 now, tomorrow will be a brighter day for California.

Reduce prison overcrowding and release our tax dollars

California now lags behind states like New York, Michigan, New Jersey, and Texas, where prison populations have been dramatically reduced, through sentencing reform and re-entry support, while maintaining public safety.

Stop the cuts, invest in our future

The only way to protect our communities from the devastating impacts of a failed economy is by investing in education, affordable housing, jobs, and mental and medical healthcare for everyone.

On the income side, CURB agrees that revenue-generating measures are critical to restoring California and — when paired with prison-reduction measures — can balance the budget for reinvesting in our communities. Some of the revenue-generating measures CURB member organizations support include:

(1) Reinstating property tax by reforming or repealing Proposition 13;

(2) Closing corporate tax loopholes;

(3) Imposing an oil severance tax;

(4) Applying a foreclosure tax to banks.

Recent polls have shown that CURB’s Budget for Humanity is much closer to what Californians actually want than proposals being put forth by Gov. Brown or the Legislature. Our ideas are not new, or even controversial, but to achieve them we need people power. We need organizing. We need you.

What can you do now?

  1. Sign on to the Budget for Humanity. Signed statements will be presented to local and state representatives.
  2. Contact a CURB representative to give a presentation at your organization, home, school, church, or community center.
  3. Join Californians United for a Responsible Budget. CURB seeks to curb prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state. We are always seeking new member organizations who are working on issues related to incarceration or who are otherwise concerned with our state budget priorities.
  4. Tell Gov. Brown to reduce our prison population now. Let him know you oppose a disproportionate and inhumane Corrections budget. Demand that cuts to safety net program be restored.


Eric Moon is the Healing Justice program coordinator for American Friends Service Committee, a member organization of CURB.

For more information on CURB or a copy of the Budget for Humanity brochure, contact:

Emily Harris, CURB Statewide Coordinator, 1322 Webster Street, #120,     Oakland, CA 94612. Phone: (510) 435-1176. Fax: (510) 839-7615.

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