Why Smarter on Crime Makes Fiscal Sense

There is a healthy amount of attention being paid to California’s systemic fiscal challenges this election cycle – with a new state budget apparently out of balance even before it was signed.    

But as we debate how to restore fiscal sanity, we need to understand how the skyrocketing cost of our state’s criminal justice system is contributing to the downward spiral – and what we can do to reverse the fiscally unsustainable trend.    

During last year’s budget, California spent 11% of its general fund on the state prison system and only 7.5% on higher education.    

This level of spending on prisons requires raising taxes and fees while cutting other programs – and, ironically, the first targets are too often programs that help reduce crime. For example, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is slashing $250 million – almost 45% – of the $560 million it had allocated to rehabilitation this year alone.    

We know that sending more kids to summer school lowers the drop-out rate, which is one of the single biggest predictors of future criminal activity. And, we also know that our state prison recidivism rate of nearly 70% could go even higher as proven prison rehabilitation programs continue to fall to the budget axe. And this recidivism rate has an immediate fiscal impact – with the cost of housing a single prisoner in California now reaching nearly $50,000 per year.    

Fixing this difficult and systemic problem will take bold new ideas and leadership. And nowhere is this issue more important than in the Attorney General’s race, where San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has the chance to bring her reform-minded, and cost effective, policies to Sacramento.    

As NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said recently, Kamala Harris has been “a transformative force on all levels, really increasing the level of intelligence in the criminal justice conversation.”    

During Harris’ tenure, San Francisco has dramatically lowered crime rates by keeping more kids in school, teaching more young people job skills, creating living wage jobs and focusing police and prosecutorial resources on programs that make the most sense, not just programs that make for easy headlines.    

The numbers prove the success of these policies. With a very small investment San Francisco has seen a significant 33% drop in elementary school truancy in just the past two years. Since keeping kids in school keeps young adults out of prison, this improvement will not only help protect San Francisco families, it will help protect California taxpayers.    

One of the best examples of the effectiveness of the Smart on Crime approach is the Back on Track program Harris launched in San Francisco. The program directs non-violent, first-time drug offenders into job training and rehabilitation services. Since the program was launched, Back on Track graduates have just a 10% recidivism rate – a stark contrast to the typical 50% rate for similar offenders. This success, if it could be replicated statewide, would save hundreds of millions of tax dollars over the long term.    

Prison sentences – long prison sentences – are a powerful tool and should be used whenever required to protect our communities. And in San Francisco, conviction rates are up as prosecutors focus on violent and serious crimes.    

But the data show that by promoting a range of prevention and intervention programs, Harris has established a track record that can protect communities without bankrupting them.      

We tend to think of the Attorney General’s race as focused on issues that are separate from other political contests in California. But with budgets so tight this year, we must embrace an Attorney General who understands how to keep us safe from crime while helping to restore fiscal sanity in Sacramento.    

David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, Host of the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast and a Former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.