About Kay Whitlock

On June 8, 2017, the California Board of State and Community Corrections announced the reallocation of $103 million in savings resulting from the passage of 2014’s Proposition 47 criminal justice sentencing reforms to drug treatment, mental health services, and re-entry supports (65 % of savings), crime prevention efforts in public schools (25%), and victim services (10%). The savings would be distributed through grants.

Originally, the Prop 47-generated savings were estimated to be $68 million for the first reporting period. (That’s the figure that finally emerged once a contentious, significant state disagreement regarding the likely magnitude of savings was resolved.) An increase to $103 million seems especially heartening on first blush and a sure sign that the state is committed to dismantling mass incarceration. In an email announcing the reallocation, Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit organization working to help institutionalize and expand a bipartisan criminal justice reform agenda, framed these savings as “coming straight from the California prisons budget.”

It’s not that simple.

The new “bipartisan reform consensus” has emerged over the past decade, in a growing number of states. At its center is the idea that tax dollars will be saved by safely reducing prison and jail populations. The implied promise is that tens of millions of dollars will be freed up and made available for reinvestment in community needs. Many of us would like to think that these needs include health care, public education, affordable housing, and transportation and other public utilities infrastructure – to be offered outside of the framework of the criminal legal system.

It could work this way, but it doesn’t. The savings are reallocated – in various ways, depending on each state’s “reinvestment” mechanisms – through processes dominated by law enforcement and corrections officials and interests as well as by entrenched politicians and accompanied by polished PR campaigns. The “community-based” reinvestments are for programs and initiatives that function, to varying degrees, as extensions of the criminal legal system. I discuss this in greater depth in a new article for The Public Eye, “Endgame: How ‘Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform’ Institutionalizes a Right-Wing, Neoliberal Agenda.”

Every person released or diverted from the prison system deserves access to essential supports. But failure to shift the locus of necessary services and their provision means that resources that should be available to all continue to be doled out though – and harnessed to – the criminal legal system, an inadequate and troubling funnel. For Black and Latinx communities, historically most heavily criminalized, this is especially problematic and provides little relief from ongoing struggles for survival. And this expands broader networks of correctional control and law enforcement surveillance.

Many of us would also like to think reform will inevitably produce a permanent shrinking not only of prison and jail populations but the system itself. But let’s return to California, which continues to be a carceral state. Californians for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide coalition of over 70 grassroots organizations working to reduce the number of people incarcerated as well as the number of prisons and jails, and to shift civic spending from corrections and policing to human service, notes several challenges. In May 2017, points out that in May 2017, California governor Jerry Brown released a revised budget that, even with projected declines of the average daily prison population due to various reforms, increases funding for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to “an all-time high of $11.4 billion.” This includes money for the rebuilding or refurbishment of a dozen of the state’s oldest prisons. Prison and overcrowding remains horrific. And this budget is proposed at a time when, as CURB emphasizes, the federal government threatens repeal of Obamacare and other forms of social safety net evisceration, which will further and disproportionately harm already poor, heavily criminalized communities.

Change takes time, it’s true. But it’s also true that in 2017, the long-implied promise of “justice reinvestment” – a steady, accelerating shift of resources from policing, prisons, and jails to social investment outside of the criminal legal system – remains not only unfulfilled, but a political sleight of hand.

We can’t end mass incarceration simply by shifting some resources to community-based programs within the larger framework of the criminal justice/legal system. We can’t end the larger carceral system by expanding its public-private community capacity for surveillance and control. And we can’t end it without acknowledging that unjust race-, gender-, class-, and disability-based policing and prosecution practices have incarcerated countless people who never belonged, who don’t, belong there in the first place.

Transformative change requires much more of us. It demands…well, vision and approaches that are more transformative. I point toward some of them, already fueling organizing efforts, in “Endgame.”

Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist whose work focuses on challenging structural forms of violence, particularly in public systems. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski and Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie. A prison abolitionist, she lives in Missoula, Montana.