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What COVID-19 Budget Cuts Mean for Public Safety Spending

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State funding aimed at programs and supervision for some jail inmates in jails and others on probation will drop sharply as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. While spending on the state correctional system will decrease less than 1% under recently announced cuts to the California state budget, funding for counties may drop 24%.

Probable cuts now loom over local budgets as well, and spending on local public safety may fall significantly.  Although lower jail populations during the pandemic could create budget savings, there may also be a higher need for re-entry and community-based services as released individuals return to communities.

In 2011, California enacted sweeping changes to its correctional system to address federal court orders to alleviate severe overcrowding in the prison system. This public safety realignment shifted correctional responsibilities for tens of thousands of offenders, from state prison and parole systems over to county sheriff and probation departments.

To fund the shift, the state created the local community corrections account, with money drawn from a dedicated portion of state sales tax revenue. Voters issued a constitutional guarantee for that portion of tax revenue when they passed Proposition 30 in November 2012. But while the percentage of revenue was guaranteed, the actual amount of sales tax collected can vary. The amount is now changing because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Counties were meant to use these funds to provide supervision and programming to individuals who were realigned from the state to the counties. More specifically, the state expected counties to fund cost-effective, evidence-based programming that improved offender rehabilitation and public safety in local communities. Such programming might include day reporting centers, expanded jail training programs, or specialized courts that handle individuals with drug dependency or mental health disorders.

Each county had the freedom to implement programs that best suited their situation. Community Corrections Partnerships (CCPs)—headed by the chief probation officer, with representatives from law enforcement, health and human services, and community organizations—provide realignment plans and recommend where to allocate funding.

Realignment funding grew 47% from $930 million in 2012–13 to $1.37 billion in 2018–19. In state budget estimates from before COVID-19, sales tax revenue rose steadily, with the local community corrections fund expected to increase to $1.54 billion for fiscal year 2020–21.

Figure - Estimates for Realignment Funding Change with the Pandemic

However, the pandemic weakened the economy—in updated state budget estimates, the governor predicted a drop in sales tax revenue of more than 27% for 2020–21. The local community corrections account is now estimated to receive only $1.17 billion—a 24% decrease from the earlier estimate and 14% below the 2018–19 fiscal year.

Because revenues are paid to counties monthly, local agencies will feel the effect of sinking revenues almost immediately. The fiscal situation undoubtedly poses challenges for successful community re-entry programs; it is more important than ever to evaluate policies and programs that to lead to cost-effective solutions.

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