- Associated Press - Thursday, November 12, 2015

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California awarded $500 million on Thursday to 15 counties to pay for new classrooms, mental health facilities and other projects intended to help rehabilitate prisoners.

The Board of State and Community Corrections approved the projects despite concerns over a plan by Butte County to contribute matching money from inmate welfare funds.

The board encouraged the county to avoid using money from a fee on inmate phone calls and commissary items.

“I think it’s fairly egregious that the inmate welfare fund, which is very overpriced phone calls and hygiene items … would be used to fund the jail,” said board member Scott Budnick, the executive producer of “The Hangover” movies who founded the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

Butte County plans to use $650,000 from the fund to help pay its 10 percent match for the $40 million it will get from the state. Sheriff Kory Honea said the money will help provide space to accommodate medical and mental health treatment, substance abuse programs, classrooms and modern housing.

“I think that that is squarely within the spirit and letter of the law when you consider that those programs are for ‘the benefit, education and welfare of inmates,’” he said, quoting the law.

Steven Meinrath, an advocate with the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, said using inmate welfare money to help pay for a jail “is just adding insult to injury” and may be illegal.

The board acted after more than three dozen critics spent more than an hour objecting that California should not be spending any more money on jails amid a national movement to reduce mass incarceration.

They briefly disrupted the meeting after the vote with whistles and noisemakers, chanting, “We need health care, not more jails.”

State lawmakers approved the money before voters lowered penalties last year for some drug and property crimes, a move that quickly reduced the state’s overall jail population by 9,000 inmates, at least in the short term.

Counties need the money to provide the kind of rehabilitation programs that voters sought when they approved Proposition 47, including those dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, jobs and education, said Cory Salzillo, a spokesman for the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Some of the projects are designed to create space for long-term felons who filtered down to jails after California began excluding less-serious offenders from state prisons four years ago, he said.

Sheriffs are “twisting … and perverting” voters’ interest in providing treatment for inmates as justification for expanding the system, opponent Lizzie Buchen said at a protest before the meeting began. She is a coordinator with Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a statewide coalition of more than 70 organizations opposed to prison and jail expansion.

Most counties sought the funds to create more classrooms and treatment space, as lawmakers intended when they approved the money, rather than to increase the number of jail cells as opponents had feared, said the ACLU’s Meinrath.

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