Last month, McClatchy Newspapers and the ProPublica news organization published an investigative article delving into how billions of dollars meant to reduce repeat criminal activity by improving local jails and probation services were siphoned off for other purposes.
“Since 2011, California has sent more than $8 billion to counties to cover the costs of the massive prison overhaul approved that year, known as ‘realignment,’ which diverted thousands of inmates from prisons to local jails,” the article, published in the Sacramento Bee and other McClatchy newspapers, revealed.
The money was meant to pay for jailing the diverted felons and for programs to help them avoid lives of crime. However, as the article points out, county officials instead shifted much of the money into ordinary law enforcement activities, especially sheriff’s offices.
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Why? Law enforcement costs were outstripping local revenues largely for the unspoken reason that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) was pressuring local governments to contribute more money to offset the system’s investment losses during the Great Recession, and to pay for pension benefit increases. Pension contributions for law enforcement officers are especially high, about 50 cents for every dollar of salary, because they receive the most generous benefits.
Regardless of the underlying reasons for the financial moves reported by McClatchy and the nonprofit ProPublica, they are another example of a long-standing, corrosive trend in California government.
Governors and legislators routinely make what they describe as transformative policy decrees, then either neglect to follow through or fail to monitor how the money meant to implement the policy is being spent.
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What’s happened with realignment money is eerily similar to what happened to another sweeping policy also championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown: an overhaul of school finance called the Local Control Funding Formula.
It removed restrictions on some state school aid and gave school districts with large numbers of underperforming poor and English-learner students extra funds to close a stubborn “achievement gap.”
As with realignment, Brown and other state officials failed — refused, actually — to monitor how the extra school money was being spent. However, outside studies have shown that much of it has been diverted to general purposes, including demands on school districts to pump more funds into CalPERS and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) to save them from insolvency.
A few days after the McClatchy-ProPublica article appeared, CalMatters published another article about the enact-and-forget syndrome, this one involving a crisis in mental health treatment that contributes mightily to the state’s horrendous homelessness problem.
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“In 1967, a law passed that transformed the treatment of people with mental illness in California,” the article noted. Much like realignment decades later, it was meant to depopulate the state’s mental hospitals, curb involuntary commitments and divert the mentally ill into local treatment programs.
However, the promises of the 1967 Lanterman-Petris-Short act to create a network of easily accessible local mental health services were never kept. The money that had been saved from closing mental hospitals was swallowed up in state budgets approved by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and his successors from both parties.
Thus, the mentally ill were left wandering the streets, often winding up in local jails and state prisons when they committed crimes and contributing to the penal crisis that realignment was supposed to address a half-century later.
We should keep the 1967 mental health law, the Local Control Funding Formula and realignment in mind the next time the state’s politicians tell us they are enacting a transformative solution to a pressing problem.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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