Shift Juvenile, Drug Offenders to Counties?

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There are some in government circles who think that times of great crisis actually provide the most opportunity for change.

That's a familiar narrative in the nation's capital these days, and one that the Legislature's corps of budget analysts is now embracing with the following suggestion: shift the responsibility for all juvenile and drug possession offenders to counties... and increase the car tax to pay for it.

Today's report from the Legislative Analyst's Office lays out a bold proposal that its authors say would not only consolidate programs now split between local and state control, but also ultumately free up $1.4 billion in badly needed state revenues.

Setting aside for a moment the political and parochial battles such a proposal will no doubt spark, here's the basic outline (the full report is here):

The LAO suggests California's 58 counties be given "full program authority and the corresponding financial responsibility" for juvenile offenders and adult substance abuse offenders. The current system, in the LAO's words, is "fragmented." The most serious juvie offenders are housed in state facilities, and a number of drug offenders have been sentenced to state prisons.

This proposal says the Legislature should give local officials full control -- and responsibility -- for managing these cases, partly because there's a greater likelihood that local solutions, and not 'one size fits all' solutions from the state, ultimately have the greatest chance for success.

Of course, the budgetary savings is hard to ignore. $359 million of the realignment price tag would come from Governor Schwarzenegger's own budget suggestion to transfer existing VLF revenues ($359 million) from the state to the counties for increased public safety responsibilities. Notice we're talking about the Vehicle License Fee... the infamous "car tax" at the center of so many budget debates since Schwarzenegger rescinded a VLF increase upon taking office in 2003.

The LAO proposal suggests a partial reinstatement of the higher VLF to pay for the rest of the realignment costs --increasing the VLF from its current .65% of a vehicle's value to 1%.

(This isn't the first time the Leg Analyst has suggested raising the car tax to 1%, using the argument that vehicles are property... and therefore it's reasonable to tax them at the same rate as other property owned by Californians.)

The shift suggested in the proposal wouldn't happen overnight; many state operations, especially the state facilities now housing the most serious juvie offenders, would probably keep housing these young people in the short term. Similarly, adult drug offenders already in state prisons would serve out their terms... and the shift to local control would begin with those who are newly convicted.

County officials are still looking over the proposal, which would clearly increase their responsibility over two very challenging criminal justice problems. Of course, the LAO report also seems to give them enough money to actually address those issues, and says the money should come with very few strings attached -- thereby allowing local officials the freedom to actually control the programs for which they've been made responsible.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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