By Jeff Horseman
Riverside County would be safer if more criminal justice dollars were spent on prevention rather than locking people up, according to a new report.
The report, “Healthy and Safe Riverside County: Investing in What Works,” encourages the county to focus more on mental health, homeless outreach and other services and less on adding jail beds.
“It is possible to reduce the amount of funding going to criminalize and incarcerate people while keeping communities safe and at the same time, keeping communities healthy and vibrant,” wrote Kim Gilhuly, the report’s author.
A county spokesman said the county already is taking steps to address issues raised in the report.
“The Human Impact report does not acknowledge all the programs and services provided to those re-entering Riverside County communities from jail or prison, or who are under court-ordered supervision,” Ray Smith said.
“Probation has developed extensive housing opportunities for this population in order to address the housing needs of those who are interested in making use of the housing options.”
Gilhuly is with Human Impact Partners, an Oakland-based outfit focused on inequalities affecting community health. The report is a collaboration between Gilhuly’s group and three others – Straight Talk Inc., which provides counseling services; Starting Over Inc., which deals with transitional housing; and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The 49-page report criticizes the county for spending too much on jailing and punishing criminals. More than two-thirds of the county’s discretionary budget goes to public safety, and the county oversees probationers and runs five jails with almost 4,000 beds, with another 1,200 beds coming with the John J. Benoit Detention Center expected to open next year.
According to the report, 47 percent of those in jails have some kind of mental illness. Almost 2,200 are homeless in the county on any given night, with 21 percent having recently been released from prison or jail, the report found.
Spending money ticketed for jails on mental health services and supportive housing for the homeless reduces the likelihood that the mentally ill and homeless will be rearrested, the report argues.
It points to a number of programs in the county and throughout California aimed at treating mental illness and helping the homeless as good investments that reduce the need for jail space.
“Programs like the ones highlighted in our report reduce homelessness, treat mental health issues and substance use, get people employed, hold people accountable for their actions, and generally decrease the use of arrest, probation, and jail as the answers for Riverside County’s social issues,” Gilhuly wrote in an email interview.
“These solutions respect dignity, reduce harm, and are cheaper than our expensive criminal justice system.”
The report also called for consulting firm KPMG, which recently conducted a review of public safety spending, to determine the savings to the county from Prop. 47, a 2014 measure approved by voters that reclassified a number of felonies as misdemeanors. While Prop. 47 advocates say the measure relieves an overburdened criminal justice system, critics blame it for an increase in crime.
Responding to the report, Smith pointed to a number of ongoing efforts in the county, including a $35 million grant for a “Whole Person Care” program to “assess probationers for physical, behavioral health and social service needs and link them to integrated services through appropriate agencies.”
The Board of Supervisors in April 2016 approved the “Stepping Up Initiative,” which “serves as a blueprint for counties to assess existing efforts to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail,” Smith said. The county’s social services department assesses probationers to see if they qualify for social services help, he added.
The county is at an all-time low in its juvenile-detention population, Smith said. “Over 70 percent of the youths placed on contract though the Youth Accountability Team program do not return to the juvenile justice system over a three-year period,” he said.
Smith said the county’s efforts are hampered by a possible $100 million budget shortfall, “created largely by state actions. Departments are working to make progress using existing resources, looking for new funding and the county is always looking for ways to do more.”
“ At this time there is no way to know exactly how the budget issue will affect programs, but it will make things more difficult.”