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Editorial: California’s Prop. 47 revolution: How to spend the savings

Judge Terry Smerling holds a drug court at Pasadena Court. Since the passage of Prop. 47, participation in drug court has dropped off in L.A. County.

Judge Terry Smerling holds a drug court at Pasadena Court. Since the passage of Prop. 47, participation in drug court has dropped off in L.A. County.

(Los Angeles Times)

Thousands of felony cases that would have been prosecuted by the office of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey became misdemeanors late last year because of Proposition 47. Lacey’s caseload dropped precipitously — first, because police were making far fewer arrests for drug crimes and theft, so they were bringing in far fewer cases; and second, because so many of the cases they did bring in were now misdemeanors that went to L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer and his counterparts in a handful of other cities — Pasadena, Long Beach, Santa Monica, even Hawthorne.

Spending decisions [should be made] deliberately and publicly ... with full acknowledgment of the costs and benefits of selecting one option over another.

What is the value to the county of such a steep reduction in workload? Surely such a thing is quantifiable. If an increase in workload carries a cost, a decrease certainly brings savings. So how much savings? Where did it all go?

And what about the fact that L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, an outspoken opponent of Proposition 47, acknowledges that because of the ballot measure, he now has far fewer people moving through his jails? A year ago, the jails were so overcrowded that the sheriff could keep inmates who were convicted of misdemeanors for only 40% of their sentences. That number had at one point dropped to 20%. Today, the jail is still full, but inmates are being kept for 70% to 90% of their sentences because there are fewer new convicts coming in each day.

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How much is that worth to the county? And what are the new savings (or costs) to other county departments in the criminal justice system, such as the Probation Department, the public defender, the alternate public defender and others?

As McDonnell and other critics of Proposition 47 have attempted to blame upticks in crime on the change in law, they argue that one of the measure’s fatal flaws is a long delay in funding for drug rehab and other programs. It is true that the ballot measure creates a fund that will be unavailable until August 2016. Critics say that means 22 months’ worth of arrested drug suspects out on their own recognizance, free to engage in mischief, without any new programs or facilities available to put them on a responsible path.

But in fact there need not be any such funding gap. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office studied the numbers and projected savings to counties from Proposition 47 at “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Counties could choose, right now, to spend their savings on all those rehab and reentry programs that critics say are not yet funded.

Because the savings mostly come in the form of reductions in workload, though, they won’t easily translate into cash unless they are accompanied by sufficient staff reductions to keep the per-employee caseload constant. Most of a county’s costs are in payroll.

But even without workforce reductions — and just to be clear, The Times does not advocate layoffs — the decrease in caseload has a value that presents itself in the form of policy choices. With fewer felonies to prosecute, for example, the district attorney could choose to lighten each individual lawyer’s caseload, or take on felony cases the office previously would have let go. Or assign more lawyers to commendable new programs like the unit to review wrongful convictions or the task force working to provide treatment instead of incarceration for mentally ill people accused of crimes. Or assign more lawyers — or fewer — to the important task of reviewing petitions by inmates now serving felony time for crimes that Proposition 47 turned into misdemeanors.

Transforming the reduced prosecutorial and incarceration caseload into an increased drug rehab and reentry services caseload would require some creativity. But the first step is to quantify the savings and acknowledge the choices.

Los Angeles County has not yet done that. It is in the nature of bureaucracy — especially public bureaucracy — for increases in workload to be accompanied by demands for more funding but decreases in workload to be absorbed without anyone offering up or even acknowledging their savings. Spending decisions are still made, of course, but absent public discussion, they are generally made by default. They should instead be made deliberately and publicly by the Board of Supervisors, the district attorney and the sheriff, as well as by nonelected county officials, with full acknowledgment of the costs and benefits of selecting one option over another.

Service providers who are working hard to help eligible applicants clean up their felony records and apply for housing and jobs argue that the county has funding to help them but is instead spending it on prosecuting and jailing. More than a year after voters adopted Proposition 47, they ask, where is the county implementation plan that acknowledges the savings and brings advocates, community groups and providers to the table to discuss policy choices?

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Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas are working on such a plan, which is expected to come before the full board this month. It is a belated but welcome step in the right direction. County criminal justice leaders already convene regularly but have not yet seriously dealt with Proposition 47. The supervisors have made great strides this year by approaching their steepest challenges — homelessness, mental illness, child welfare — in a more thoughtful, strategic and productive manner, but have not yet applied that thinking to Proposition 47. The county has the capacity — and the obligation — to do far more than it has done until now to ensure that the voters’ will is put into effect in a manner that enhances public safety and maximizes the impact of county resources.

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