Looking To Prison Sentence Reforms To Balance California’s Budget

prison-reformOn Thursday, the ACLU of California sent an open letter  to Governor Jerry Brown, Senate President Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, asking that two key reforms targeting waste in prison spending are included in the May revised budget.

They claim that these two reforms alone would save the state hundreds of millions annually: making possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor instead of a felony and making low-level non-violent property offenses – like vandalism or writing a bad check – a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

“California spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year locking people up for low-level, non-violent offenses, said Abdi Soltani, Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “Meanwhile, we are slashing funds for public universities and social services. So we had to ask, who is really high here? To balance the budget, we need to balance our priorities. We can save money and keep our communities safe by reserving felony sentences for serious crimes.”

According to their statistics, over 9,000 people are currently locked up in state prison for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $400 million per year.

Additionally, the bar for being able to charge someone with a felony and send them to state prison is $400 for vandalism. Anyone passing a bad check of $450 or more could also be charged with a felony and sent to state prison. Felonies can result in significantly longer sentences than misdemeanors—up to three years.

As we have seen in Yolo County, for instance, the use of assessors to give higher figures for the cost of vandalism repair has led to felony charges in cases that should have been misdemeanors.

The Vanguard last year reported on an individual who bounced two checks at separate times and the DA’s office combined the total to give the individual a felony charge and, combined with a violation of probation, ended up placing the individual in prison for 9 years at taxpayer expense.

And, in fact, the value of the two checks was not $450, but $215.

As we reported in July 2010, on June 16, 2007 and again three days later, James Davis, a 46-year-old, wrote two checks to Nugget Market that were returned for insufficient funds.  Mr. Davis says in his declaration that he was down on his luck and was trying to buy food and necessities for his family.

“The two checks written to Nugget Market were written for food and necessities for my family,” Mr. Davis wrote.  “I continue to struggle with a lack of job opportunities, both because I am a laborer with spine injuries and because I suffered felony convictions with jail and prison sentences at a young age. However, I have tried to do the best I can and continue to do what I can to take care of my family. My family always comes first even, like now, when I must take the consequences for my actions.”

As Mr. Davis’ attorney, Lisa Lance from the Yolo County Public Defender’s office, explained in a motion, the combined total of two checks was $215.94.  According to the law, a bounced check for $200 constitutes a felony.

“Neither check was close to the $200 required to make this felony conduct, so the district attorney combined the two incidents, making the total $215.94; $15.94 cents over what would have remained misdemeanor conduct even combined,” Ms. Lance wrote.

Worse yet, after the preliminary hearing, the DA’s office piled on two second degree burglary charges, arguing that there was an element of intent – in other words, he knew that these were bad checks when he wrote it.  Ms. Lance, though, called that element, “nominally supported” and “circumstantial at best.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Davis faced trial for 3 felonies, 3 prison priors and two strikes “for writing two insufficient funds checks, neither anywhere close to felony conduct by itself.”

Last May the Vanguard reported on the case of Loren Poirier, for whom the DA was seeking three strikes in a case involving separate incidents of vandalism.

Mr. Poirier has a history of serious mental illness, diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder, and there are serious questions both about his competency to stand trial as well as his state of mind at the time in which the crimes were committed.

On September 9, 2009, Mr. Poirier apparently broke windows in an empty house in West Sacramento in the middle of the day while shouting, “America never loses.”

In jail at Monroe Detention Center the next day in the Medical Unit, Mr. Poirier banged on the wire mesh reinforced glass of his cell window with his food tray and broke the glass.

The District Attorney’s office charged Mr. Poirier with felony vandalism for this episode.  However, in order for vandalism to be categorized as a felony, it must amount to more than $400 in damage.

The District Attorney’s office acquired an estimate from a glass company in Sacramento that would charge the county $1100 to repair the glass at Monroe Detention Center.  However, according to the defense, a local Woodland Glass Company would only charge a little over $300 to do the job.  Ironically, that individual was the individual that installed the glass in the first place.

Mr. Poirier was eventually sent to Napa, but this case illustrates the kind of abuse the $400 barrier allows to occur.

In their letter to the Governor and Speaker, the ACLU wrote, “We commissioned a recent poll of likely California voters to gauge public opinion about these issues, and specifically about a straightforward sentencing reform idea: reducing the penalty for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The results of this public opinion research were remarkable. Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents from every corner of the state believe that too many people are imprisoned and that penalties for minor offenses are too harsh.”

They argue that felonies involve higher court costs and result in lengthier periods of incarceration.

“The cost savings from these reforms would be substantial,” the letter continues. “These savings would make implementation of your realignment plan less costly, allowing local authorities to use the money saved to fund rehabilitation, drug treatment, and other proven strategies for reducing crime.”

At the same time, these sentencing reforms would help to preserve scarce dollars for education, public safety, health care and social services, the letter argues.

“It will mean that California will stop spending unnecessary millions incarcerating people for lengthy periods who pose no threat to public safety,” the ACLU continued.

The ACLU’s proposed reforms would help to bring back balance to our sentencing laws, so that the punishment fits the crime, and yield substantial savings because felonies involve higher court costs and result in lengthier periods of incarceration than misdemeanors, an accompanying press release argued.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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7 thoughts on “Looking To Prison Sentence Reforms To Balance California’s Budget”

  1. Fight Against Injustice

    I would also like to see something done so that DA’s don’t have so much latitude in making something a felony that should be a misdemeanor–like adding the two bad checks together to make it a felony.

    This story and the story you wrote the other day about the DA charging a felony for stealing a candy bar, makes one wonder why are there no limits set on what the DA can charge.

    In the candy bar incident, I was happy to see that the judge stepped in and reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. I am also happy to see that people are talking about fixing the sentencing for non-violent crimes.

    I just hope that the judges in Yolo County step up more like in the candy bar incident and fix the over charging issues we keep seeing.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]According to their statistics, over 9,000 people are currently locked up in state prison for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $400 million per year.[/quote]

    From another article in the Vanguard, it was noted the state budget deficit is $85 billion. So the fact of the matter is that a $400 million savings is a drop in the bucket(less than 1/2 a percent) – and will not make much of a dent in the budget. So frankly, cost savings is not a compelling argument for reducing sentences for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, etc. (altho I always argue that a penny here, a penny there, all adds up to significant dollars eventually). The better argument is proportionality. Is it really appropriate to give a person a felony criminal record for causing $400 worth of damage to property, for instance? CA has been a very strong law and order state bc the VOTERS seemed to want it that way…

  3. Frankly

    As of December 31, 2008, 31,529 people were in prison in California for drug-related offenses. In the overview budget report for the CDCR on March 19, 2009, it indicated that the average cost to detain an inmate in California was $48,843 annually, which translates to roughly $1.5 billion to incarcerate people for drug crimes annually in California.

    The question is what does $1.5 billion buy us?

    – No material reduction in the availability of drugs
    – No material reduction in the number of people using drugs
    – Lives forced-destroyed from incarceration rather than self-destroyed from drug use

    Ironically, the population of drug-using prisioners is supplied by the same crappy public school system that we would rather use the money for.

  4. Alphonso

    [b]”CA has been a very strong law and order state bc the VOTERS seemed to want it that way…”[/b]

    That is a good point, but I wonder if the voters are making informed decisions. It is easy to vote for “law and order” if the costs are left out of the decision equation.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Elaine: How many teachers or police officers can you buy for $400 million?[/quote]

    Wait a minute. Didn’t the public unions argue that pensions at $3.7 million (I think that was the figure – correct me if I am wrong) was a small percentage of the $85 million budget deficit, and therefore there really was no reason for drastic pension reform? Teachers/police officers cannot have it both ways, arguing on the one hand that pensions at $3.7 million represents a drop in the bucket in regard to the $85 million budget deficit; but $400 million is such a critically large amount that could go towards hiring more teachers/police if sentencing reform were put in place. Public union proponents can’t have it both ways. As far as I am concerned, we need both – pension reform and sentencing reform – bc in the aggregate it all adds up to a huge waste of dollars that is going on…

  6. medwoman


    Wait one more minute. I think that the relative amounts involved here don’t represent a case of ” having it both ways”. $400 million is so much more objectively than $3.7 million when compared to the $85 million budget deficit that I think it is valid ( although I don’t agree ) to make the “drop in the bucket” argument on numeric grounds alone.

    The reason that I don’t agree with the drop in the bucket argument is that especially at times of financial hardship,I feel that all expenditures should be on the table for inspection. Then it becomes a matter of agreed upon priorities which programs should be scaled back and which maintained.

    And I also agree with your oft stated ” a penny here, a penny there” approach to finances. I suspect neither of us grew up rich !

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