New Web App Asks Californians to Weigh Incarceration Spending Against Cuts to Education, Social Services, Public Safety

California’s budget negotiations are an exercise in high stakes tradeoffs.  And as legislators finalize deep cuts to education and the safety net, the ACLU is challenging Californians to acquire a real-time sense of how the state’s bottom line would fare if prisons and jails were placed at the center of the chopping block.

Think Outside the Box ( premieres online today and takes as its starting point the fact that last year, 11% of California’s total General Fund – or $10,700,000,000 – was being spent on criminal justice, most of it on the state prison system.

With each click, users are in the appropriations driver’s seat. Is it best to hold tight to the “lock ‘em up” status quo, or to achieve significant savings by, for example, canceling all 2012 jail construction projects (savings = $727 million)?  Should we enact modest reforms to allow people who are accused of low level offenses to be released from jail while they await trial (=$225 million)?   Or revise the penalty for simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor (=$64 million)?

In the app, users who trim criminal justice dollars can trade the savings for investments in child care and preschool, K-12 education, and CalGrants for college students without going into the red.  All of these areas have seen severe budget cuts in recent years while much of our criminal justice system remains wastefully bloated.

“The exercise may be virtual but the tradeoffs are real and realistic. We need to engineer a future with more education and less incarceration, and better choices are the way we get from here to there,” said Abdi Soltani, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California.

Do the Numbers:  Incarceration Math

The Adult Division of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employs over 24,000 staff, most of whom are correctional officers at an average salary of over $60,000.   We spend nearly $50,000 each year for every adult we lock up in state prison and about $25,000 each year for every adult we lock up in a county jail.

25% of the world’s prisoners are in the United States, and California houses one of the largest incarcerated populations in the U.S.

Every dollar we spend on incarceration is a dollar that is not spent on more effective public safety solutions, education, or social services.

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