Valley Voices

Janine Nkosi and Booker T. Lewis II: We can end Fresno cycle of crime

Bible stories are full of trials and tribulations but also redemption and hope. Such themes remain true today, and we must remember this as we face our most challenging problems.

In Fresno, this includes the vital matter of public safety. The county suffers from higher-than-average poverty (21% according to U.S. Census 2010)and, importantly, below-average investments in the cornerstones of community safety (education, health, support for the poor, etc.).

The two are related, and there is now a chance to make significant changes to both. Thursday night at Fresno’s Westside Church of God, local residents and guests from local and state government will gather to discuss this very topic — and an opportunity at hand.

That opportunity is Proposition 47, a historic voter initiative that Californians approved in November 2014, making California the leader once again in addressing unjust laws. The law changes six low-level offenses (drug possession and petty theft crimes) from felonies to misdemeanors, with the goal of reducing over-incarceration for nonviolent acts and instead investing those savings into local programs focused on prevention.

Leading up to Prop. 47’s passage, California was far behind in adhering to a federal court order to reduce the number of people in its overcrowded prisons (because the conditions were deemed unconstitutionally cruel). Meanwhile, 33 of California’s 58 counties, including Fresno, had overcrowded jails, leading to lawsuits, early release and high costs to taxpayers.

Despite this reliance on incarceration, California and its counties have disturbingly high recidivism rates: Six of 10 people released from prison return within three years.

Clearly we have failed to break the cycle of crime, and that is bad for everyone: victims, law enforcement, families and entire communities.

Over decades, the state and counties have regularly cut education, health programs and community investments, while continually spending more on prisons and jails. California now spends $10 billion per year on its prisons, and it costs taxpayers $62,396 for each person imprisoned annually. In contrast, the state spends less than $9,200 per pupil on funding for K-12. This is not how we achieve safety, nor community health.

Prop. 47 offers the opportunity to change the course of history and offer positive change for Californians. While the six offenses changed can still lead to arrest, detainment and up to a year in jail (if convicted), the law calls for a new way to approach safety, including more effective forms of accountability, new partnerships and new investments — all geared toward addressing crime’s root causes.

The Legislative Analysts Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency, estimates Prop. 47 will save the state and counties hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and those funds are intended for local mental health and drug treatment, school programs for at-risk youth and victim services. Cities like Oakland are already responding to the crisis with effective programs, including a procedural justice training program for law enforcement. Contra Costa County adopted a model re-entry strategic plan that uses a holistic, systematic and inclusive approach to treat substance abuse, facilitate re-entry and reduce recidivism.

But this will only work if we see the law as an opportunity to end ineffective, inhumane practices. That is why we are part of a statewide effort led by PICO California, a nonprofit network of faith and community leaders, to host forums across California with state and local officials about how we can collaborate on more effective uses of public safety resources.

At these events, we are delivering three messages: First, individuals impacted by both crime and the justice system must be heard if we are to improve fairness, justice and safety in our communities. Just as education reform efforts must involve teachers, parents and students, solutions for our criminal justice system must be informed by all whom it touches.

Second, the voters who passed Prop. 47 did so because of the promise of new investments into our communities. Officials must hear this call and use Prop. 47’s savings to bolster programs for our children, mentally ill, people with addictions, and crime victims.

Finally, recognize that individuals can change. Redemption is not simply in Bible stories; we see it every day in people who are changing their lives for the better.

Counties can do the same — show that they can change and improve — and we ask that Fresno officials partner with community members on more just, effective ways to break cycles of poverty, addiction and crime. These problems weigh heavily on our minds, but our hearts are full of hope with the possibilities at hand.