Tried and Tested Ways of Reducing Jail Overcrowding

November 24, 2014

On November 4, California voters approved Proposition 47, a measure that downgrades certain low-level offenses to misdemeanors, thereby limiting the sentence for those crimes to a maximum of one year in county jail. CBP’s analysis of Proposition 47 concluded that this reduction in length of stay could not only lessen the harm that incarceration causes to an individual’s physical and mental health, but could also alleviate jail overcrowding by thousands of beds each year.

This potential for reducing jail-capacity needs should come as good news to state officials, given that California has invested $1.7 billion since 2007 to build new jails or replace and expand old ones, in part to address jail overcrowding. Indeed, the 2014-15 budget agreement provides an additional $500 million for jail construction, despite concern expressed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office that such added capacity may not be necessary.

While passage of Proposition 47 is expected to help address jail overcrowding, counties could potentially build on this key advance by more fully using several other alternatives to incarceration that reduce jail populations while fostering public safety:

  • Counties could employ validated risk-assessment tools to ensure that only individuals who pose a high risk to public safety are detained in their jails. Contra Costa County has been able to manage its jail population through a combination of several strategies, including use of a risk-assessment tool to determine what level of supervision and services people in their jail require. According to a recent study, Contra Costa County has achieved lower rates of incarceration than the rest of the state along with a decrease in crime that mirrors the statewide trend.
  • Counties could reduce the number of people detained in jail prior to their court date by providing alternative supervision in the community. Santa Cruz County created the Jail Alternatives Initiative in 2004 to address a grand jury report pointing to unsafe conditions in the local jail due to overcrowding. The initiative established a pretrial services program that uses five different types of release based on the needs of the individual. This has allowed the county to maintain lower numbers of people in jail awaiting their court date compared to the rest of California.
  • Counties could perform a comprehensive analysis of who is serving time in their jails to identify populations that would be better served through community-based programs. The City and County of San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has been collaborating with local nonprofit organizations since the 1980s to develop alternatives to detention for populations with specialized needs. In particular, a growing number of homeless individuals were not eligible for release from jail while they were waiting for their court date because they did not have an address. Additionally, homeless populations are particularly vulnerable to high-risk health factors, such as infectious diseases, problematic drug use, and mental health issues. A local nonprofit created the Homeless Release Project, which identified transient individuals who were detained pretrial for misdemeanor crimes and linked them with housing, medical care, mental health and drug treatment, and other necessary services. A preliminary study of the program found that participants were less likely to reoffend or to commit more serious crimes, and the project was subsequently consolidated into a larger scheme of pretrial services.

Now that Proposition 47 has passed, counties will have to consider what effect it may have on their jail populations and determine whether they really do need further construction funding. But at the same time, the state board that will administer the new state funding for added jail capacity should consider whether counties have fully embraced available population-management strategies when evaluating applications for construction dollars.

— Selena Teji


Policymakers Take Steps to Improve Food Security, but Opportunities to Address Hunger Remain

July 14, 2014

State policymakers have recently taken several important steps to expand access to CalFresh food assistance for California families, but opportunities to address high levels of poverty and hunger in the Golden State remain.

More than 15 percent of California households struggle to afford enough food, even several years after the Great Recession officially ended. And it is especially troubling that more than one-quarter of California children are food insecure. Many administrative decisions that can expand CalFresh eligibility, increase participation, or simplify enrollment are made at the state level, presenting policymakers with the opportunity to make investments and other policy choices that yield broadly shared benefits to California communities. CalFresh benefits, which are 100 percent federally funded, are spent locally at grocery stores and farmers markets. Researchers have found that $1 spent on benefits generates about $1.80 in economic activity during difficult economic times.

Given the significant unmet need for — and the broad benefits of — CalFresh food assistance, it is fortunate (as we blogged about earlier) that policymakers took important steps during the recent budget deliberations to expand eligibility.

For example, the 2014-15 state budget creates a new, state-funded energy assistance program that avoids harsh CalFresh benefit cuts that otherwise would have resulted from the new federal Farm Bill. The Farm Bill imposed restrictions on state “Heat and Eat” policies, which increase benefits to households who also receive federal energy assistance. More than 300,000 California households would have lost an average of $62 per month, or about one-third of the average household benefit amount. This $10 million state investment will keep $300 million in federal funds flowing to California to be spent on families’ most basic needs.

The 2014-15 budget agreement also helps more low-income families qualify for CalFresh by increasing the gross income limit to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. This change takes advantage of the federal option known as “broad-based categorical eligibility.” Households will still need a net income — their gross income minus expenses like housing and child care — at or below 100 percent of the poverty line, or $19,790 for a family of three, in order to receive CalFresh food assistance. Taking advantage of broad-based categorical eligibility removes a significant barrier for families who are working, but spend large shares of their income on basic needs, leaving too few dollars in their budgets to provide an adequate diet.

Further, the budget agreement repeals the lifetime ban from CalFresh — as well as from CalWORKs — for Californians with certain drug felony convictions. California now joins 21 other states in opting out of the federal policy creating this lifetime ban, inaugurated as part of welfare reform in the mid-1990s. The state Senate estimates this change will benefit 20,000 Californians directly.

Other Policy Options Left on the Table

While the state has made progress in maintaining or expanding access to critical food assistance, several policy options — which would especially help children and students — remain on the table.

California is tied for dead last among states for overall CalFresh participation, and has the lowest participation rate among eligible working families. Streamlining enrollment processes would lower barriers to participation and ease potential sources of confusion during difficult times for families. These families would also benefit from investments in meals their children are served in the child care and development system.

Some potential policy options include:

o   Reinvesting in nutrition assistance for early childhood education programs. The federal government reimburses child-care providers for nutritious meals and snacks served to low-income children. Recognizing higher food costs in the state, California has contributed state funding to this reimbursement. Yet over the last three years, nearly all of the state’s share has been cut. During the recent budget deliberations, the Assembly proposed a $10 million state reinvestment in early childhood nutrition, modestly increasing reimbursements. The 2014-15 budget agreement did not include this restoration, which would have provided an added incentive for child-care providers to serve nutritious meals.

o   Streamlining eligibility for community college students. Federal law limits CalFresh eligibility for college students, who are generally required to work at least 20 hours per week or be enrolled in a work training program to qualify. This presents a barrier for nontraditional students who do not rely on their parents for support. Assembly Bill 1930 would allow more community college students to qualify for CalFresh by considering participation in EOPS — Extended Opportunities Programs and Services — as work training. This policy change could help more than 70,000 low-income students afford sufficient food and thus be better able to concentrate on their studies. The bill will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.

o   Aligning Medi-Cal and CalFresh eligibility. State policymakers have already begun to more closely align programs for health coverage and food assistance, both in recognition of the close relationship between nutrition and health and in an effort to increase efficiency. For example, more than 90 percent of individuals eligible for CalFresh are also eligible for Medi-Cal. Senate Bill 1002 would allow households to renew their eligibility for Medi-Cal and CalFresh at the same time and would help families to more easily maintain benefits and reduce needless paperwork. SB 1002 will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee in August.

Food security is a key component of family well-being. CalFresh food assistance provides broad benefits to low-income families and their children and to local communities. State policymakers took several vital steps to expand eligibility to vulnerable populations in the recent budget deliberations. There is more work to be done to help families make ends meet in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

— Miranda Everitt

The State Budget Is Done — Time to Start Thinking About … the State Budget

July 10, 2014

In the wake of another on-time state budget, and with the Legislature on a month-long summer break, it would be natural to conclude that Californians won’t hear about — and don’t need to think about — the state budget again until sometime in 2015.

On the contrary: Like the Big Apple, California’s budget process never sleeps, a point highlighted in Dollars and Democracy, our newly updated guide to the rules and practices that shape the development of each year’s state budget package. The always-in-motion character of the state budget process can be seen in the following examples:

  • First, the seeds of each year’s state budget are planted well before January 10 — the constitutional deadline for the Governor to propose a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year (which begins on July 1). Starting each summer and continuing through the fall, the Governor’s proposed budget is developed within the various agencies and departments of the executive branch through a process coordinated by the Department of Finance. While there is no official opportunity for public input at this stage, resourceful Californians can find ways to get their priorities heard — and maybe even adopted — by the Administration as the proposed spending plan is being assembled.
  • Second, far from being set in stone, the “final” budget that is crafted by lawmakers and the Governor following months of hearings and negotiations is likely to change over the course of a fiscal year. This occurs as state policymakers revise spending up or down and add new “trailer” bills to the budget package. For example, in each of the past two years the Legislature has passed a new budget bill — known as “Budget Bill, Jr.” — just a couple of months after the original budget bill was signed into law. The odds are that the budget package signed by Governor Brown a couple of weeks ago will be revised at least once, if not multiple times, in the coming months.

In short, there’s no “off season” as far as the state budget goes. While the January-to-June period gets the most attention, the process of crafting the budget is an ongoing enterprise, giving Californians ample reason to stay engaged and involved year-round.

— Scott Graves

Your Guide to the Requirements for Approving Key Legislative Actions in California

June 4, 2014

Each year, state lawmakers grapple with an array of major public policy issues that are subject to varying requirements for approval. This year, for example, lawmakers are considering whether to extend a tax break for companies that make movies or television series in California, a proposal that needs only a simple majority vote of the Legislature and the Governor’s signature to take effect. In contrast, current proposals to sell general obligation (GO) bonds to finance new dams require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, the Governor’s signature, and voter approval.

For the most part, the rules for approving legislative actions are set forth in California’s lengthy and complex state Constitution. In an effort to help Californians navigate these rules, we’ve put together a simple, easy-to-read table that illustrates the key steps for approving 18 legislative actions, from passing the budget to amending the Constitution itself. This guide shows that more than half of these actions require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, most require the Governor’s signature, and a few need the consent of the voters.

— Scott Graves

Recent Lessons in Tax Policy From California and Kansas

March 31, 2014

In 2012, as states across the country continued to cope with the aftershocks of the Great Recession, California and Kansas pursued markedly different paths in tax policy.

In Kansas, the state legislature in May 2012 passed — and Governor Brownback signed into law — a package of large tax cuts, including dropping the top income tax rate by approximately one-fourth and eliminating income taxes entirely on business profits that are “passed through” from businesses to their owners. In addition, the Kansas tax package raised the standard deduction and eliminated a number of tax credits that benefit low-income individuals and families.

In contrast, California voters in November 2012 approved Proposition 30, increasing personal income tax rates on very-high-income Californians for seven years and raising the state’s sales tax rate by one-quarter cent for four years.

The divergent paths pursued in California and Kansas provide an opportunity to compare state approaches to tax policy and the impacts of those policies on households, public systems and services, and economic performance.

According to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the tax cuts enacted in Kansas “were among the largest ever enacted by any state” in percentage terms. The evidence from Kansas so far:

  • Large revenue losses: Kansas has seen an 8 percent decrease in revenues used to fund schools, health care, and other public services, with the revenue loss projected to rise to 16 percent over the next five years.
  • Continuing cuts to schools: While most states are attempting to restore funding for schools after years of cuts, Kansas is proposing still more cuts. The Governor recently proposed another reduction in per-pupil general school aid for the next fiscal year that would leave funding 17 percent below pre-recession levels.
  • Little evidence of improving economic performance: Since the tax cuts, Kansas has added jobs at a pace slower than the country as a whole.

California’s experience since the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012 stands in stark contrast to the recent story Kansas. The evidence from California so far:

  • Large revenue gains: The state’s General Fund revenues increased from $85.6 billion in 2011-12 to an estimated $99.8 billion in 2013-14, and are projected to grow to $106.9 billion in Governor Brown’s proposed 2014-15 budget, an increase of nearly one-quarter (22.6 percent) since 2011-12.
  • Increased funding for schools: The Governor’s 2014-15 spending proposal assumes a total funding level of $61.6 billion for schools and community colleges in 2014-15, nearly one-third (30.6 percent) more than in 2011-12.
  • Improving economic performance: Since 2012, job growth in California has outpaced that of the US as a whole.

To be clear, higher state revenues in California are a product of Proposition 30 and a recovering economy, just as slower economic growth in Kansas contributes, along with tax cuts, to lower state revenues. The linkages between tax policy changes and economic performance are, in general, weak. As the CBPP study reports, “states that cut taxes in the 1990s performed worse, on average, over the course of the next economic cycle than states that were more fiscally prudent. And the academic literature overwhelmingly finds that states with lower personal income taxes perform no better economically than their peers.” Recent experiences in California and Kansas support this evidence — increasing taxes in California did not curb economic growth, while decreasing taxes in Kansas did not boost economic growth.

What is clear, however, is that large tax cuts in Kansas — most of which went to high-income households — have significantly reduced state revenues and resulted in cuts to the state’s schools and other public systems and services, while promises of economic improvement have failed to materialize. Meanwhile, in California, the revenues provided by Proposition 30 have provided the state with the fiscal policy space to boost school funding, pay down debts and liabilities, and begin to reinvest in other public structures and supports as the state’s economy recovers.

— Chris Hoene