$103 Million in Prison Savings Awarded to 23 California Cities, Counties

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Inmates at Chino State Prison in 2010.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

When voters were asked to approve Proposition 47 in 2014 and reduce many drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, they were promised that the prison and jail savings generated would be spent trying to prevent future crimes.

That promise was kept Thursday: A state board awarded $103 million to 23 cities and counties to provide services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment in their communities.

The grants range from a whopping $20 million for Los Angeles County to expand re-entry programs for offenders with mental illness and drug addiction to $1 million for the small city of Corning in rural Tehama County to connect youths who have been arrested with housing and education.

In all, 58 cities and counties submitted proposals asking for $225 million over the next three years. John Bauters — who was on the committee that decided which communities should get the money, and works for the organization that authored Proposition 47 — said the 18-member committee had a tough job, because all of the applications were strong.

"The best part is that we got a very diverse array (of applicants) — so the thing in common was the diversity of it," he said. "Although they all provided very similar services in a way, they did so differently and they were creative, locally tailored approaches to dealing with their own constituent groups."

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Ultimately, Bauters said, that's the biggest strength of the Proposition 47 grant program: The money is going to local groups that know what their community needs.

"Smart safety begins at the local level, and when you give local communities the tools they need and the resources they need to address problems in their community, you can really yield the best results," he said.

Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson agreed. Rialto, in San Bernardino County, is getting just under $1 million to expand a program aimed at keeping teens out of trouble. She says it’s been a huge success and can now grow to include even more youths.

"Two Saturdays ago we had orientation kicking off our third year, and the room was packed," she said. "It was packed from parents who were happy to still have their kids participate, and packed with newcomers that they had shared the success with, and what they saw were the benefits and positive, constructive activities for the summer. And they had invited their friends."

Proposition 47 has been controversial in some quarters, with many law enforcement leaders blaming the ballot measure for an increase in property crimes in California. The ballot measure not only reduced many drug possessions to misdemeanors but also raised the threshold for felony theft to $950.

Perry Brents, Rialto's community services director, who took the lead on the city's Proposition 47 grant, said he thinks the disbursement of funds to crime prevention programs could quiet some of those critics.

"Nobody is seeing the results of Prop. 47 like the city of Rialto, and it makes it hard to understand if you don't see the results," he said. "In this case we have hard evidence of the effects of how it's working for us. ... I don't think you can be opposed if you see results."

Robertson also praised the grant program for rewarding smaller cities alongside large urban centers.

Bauters agreed, saying he was particularly impressed with some of the smaller applications, including Corning's and one from the Oceanside Unified School District aimed at reaching more juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system with a wide range of crime prevention and rehabilitation programs.

Bauters and other backers of Proposition 47 hope the program will grow in future years. They believe the savings to the state from the ballot measure are even bigger than the $103 million over three years calculated by the governor's office. Proposition 47 gave the governor the power to decide that amount, however.

Still, Bauters said the grants from the Board of State and Community Corrections are historic, noting it's the first time that money previously spent on incarcerating criminals will go toward crime prevention.

"We've had an increase in corrections spending and prisons in particular. Since 1981, there's been an increase of 1500 percent," he said. "Thanks to the savings from Prop. 47, California for the first time is creating a treatment and prevention infrastructure that millions of Californians have wanted and needed for generations ... this was a reprioritization of how Californians wish to see money spent."

He hopes applicants who didn’t win the grants this time around will reapply in 2020.