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Public defenders slam Newsom for slashing budget, prioritizing theft prosecution

Newsom's proposed budget cuts $50 million from an established resentencing program, which public defenders say will keep people in prison even after they've been rehabilitated.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — As California's budget faces big cuts amid a revenue shortfall, some lawyers say Governor Gavin Newsom wants to gut public safety funding at a time when critical reforms within the criminal justice system rely on state support. 

Public defenders in Oakland and San Francisco have been quick to criticize Newsom’s proposed budget for 2023-2024 presented on Jan. 10, which cuts significantly from a public defense budget. 

“The state of California is investing $564 million to combat retail theft and cutting $50 million from the public defense grant that was used to get people resentenced & reunite families,” Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods wrote on Twitter. “Louis Vuitton over people. Makes a lot of sense.”

San Francisco County public defender Mano Raju said on Twitter that he is urging the governor to reconsider the cut, which he called "outrageous in the context of the proposed budget giving 100s of millions to prosecutors and cops and billions to prisons."

"The Legislature OK'd this pilot because Californians know our legal system is broken and that wrongfully sentenced people have little recourse," Raju said. "This modest $50 million statewide program addressed those wrongs."

In an interview, Woods said the $50 million cut removes the final portion of an ongoing three-year public defense pilot grant which covers four areas of resentencing. That places the entire resentencing unit in Alameda County in an uncertain position.

“What this law pretty much did was recognize that California for forever had a way of sentencing people (incorrectly) — so it allows us to go back and get our clients resentenced,” Woods said. “So we’re now unable to get to a bunch of people who are locked in cages who should be resentenced.”

Woods said the cut seems to be the opposite of previous policy the governor pushed, like opposing or closing for-profit prisons, dismantling death row and focusing on rehabilitation — especially by adding more than $560 million to “combat retail theft” and beef up prosecution. 

He also pointed to the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office September report showing the disparity of funding between public defenders and district attorneys, with district attorneys receiving nearly $1 billion more in funding. Woods said "it makes no sense” not to trim from the sizeable state prosecution side at all.

A September report from the Legislative Analyst's Office shows the difference in funds for public defenders versus district attorneys in California. (Legislative Analyst's Office / Courthouse News)

Woods said because it costs approximately more than $100,000 to incarcerate one person for a year, the state could actually save money by focusing on rehabilitation. 

“The more people we get released, who are serving time in prison, is a massive savings to the state,” he said. “Post-conviction grant money has been getting people released left and right … people who have served a considerable amount of time, demonstrated that they have been rehabilitated and should be released.”

Public defenders handle 85% of state criminal cases, for people who cannot afford to hire counsel and are predominately Black and Latino.

“Cutting these resources to these segments of the community is extremely damaging and will continue the prison pipeline,” Woods said. 

Raju, San Francisco's public defender, touted his county's post-conviction relief program as a money saver.

"Post-conviction relief programs like ours save the state millions with over 3000 families served annually by this program statewide at a cost of less than $17,000 per family, compared to the $106,000 the state pays to incarcerate each person in prison yearly," Raju said in an emailed statement. 

"In that respect, the governor’s budget proposal is disheartening because it continues to broadly fund incarceration, which separates individuals from their families and support networks, destabilizes communities, and thereby costs the state even more money. Rather than throwing more money at our carceral system, our public funds are better spent investing in public defender offices which are closest to the people impacted by the system and in a better position to connect people to the services needed to rehabilitate and rebuild their lives."

Vallejo-based civil rights attorney Melissa Nold said it also affects her clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, who are affected first when public defense funds are cut.

In an interview, she criticized the governor’s focus on retail theft, saying it is “widely considered propaganda in many communities” and noting Walgreens’ recent admission that it overstated the threat of retail thefts last year. 

Nold thinks funding prosecution of petty crimes ignores that these are nonviolent, poverty-related crimes during difficult financial times, when the state could save by giving money to programs to help people accused of theft find employment. She said Newsom's policies emphasize “protecting wealth, protecting property owners, protecting corporations that are insured and making life more difficult for the people who are struggling to live here.”

“When you’re adding more funds to prosecute, when you know the people that are doing those crimes are there because of societal conditions, how do you expect to stop retail issues when you’re creating more impoverished people?” Nold said. “Anytime you start slashing what are pretty much shoestring budgets, it’s pretty concerning. Creating more money to prosecute poor people doubles down on those problems.”

But Newsom's proposed budget isn't all bad, according to Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price. Newsom proposal improves the state and county’s tools by focusing on "areas that address (the) systemic root causes of violence."

"The DA’s office appreciates the particular resources the governor’s budget gives to assist crime victims/survivors and their families in healing," Price said in a statement.

The governor’s press office did not respond to a request to comment about the public safety draft budget. 

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