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Jun. 12, 2024

California’s resentencing program saves lives and money

Public defender resentencing units should not depend on annual budget battles, but rather receive permanent funding and recognition as a vital tool to reduce mass incarceration and its harms.

Mano Raju

Elected Public Defender of San Francisco,

555 7th Street
San Francisco , CA 94103-4709

Phone: (415) 553-9320

Fax: (415) 553-9810


UC Berkeley School of Law


What if a tiny fraction of the California budget were dedicated to reducing mass incarceration and could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, while also reuniting those who have served excessive sentences with their families and the communities they seek to serve? This is what the California state-funded Public Defender Pilot Program (PDPP) has shown can be done, but its funding is in jeopardy.

Over the past few years, state legislators have passed several laws that aim to remedy "hyper-punitive policies" that have contributed to mass incarceration in our most populous state. Thousands of incarcerated Californians are eligible to have a court review their sentences, but most do not have the resources or guidance that will help them access the courts for a formal review and a chance to regain their freedom.

Public defenders, who have represented the majority of people in our state prisons, are uniquely equipped to implement those laws when given the resources. The PDPP has allowed my office in San Francisco to fully staff our resentencing unit called The Freedom Project to provide attorneys to analyze and identify qualifying cases, paralegals to obtain and sort through records that span decades, and social workers to do meticulous release planning and support clients through reentry. This holistic approach has been key to ensuring our clients have essential things like housing, support services, and opportunities so they can restart their lives to move in positive directions.

One such client is Belinda Anderson, who was incarcerated when she was in her 20's and spent 31 years in prison. Even though she earned her associate's degree and participated in extensive programs to improve herself and come to terms with why she was there, she still held little hope of getting out. Due to the guidance and advocacy of The Freedom Project, Belinda has now been free for over two years. She is taking additional college courses and working at a navigation center helping vulnerable people access services. She's also able to cook with her daughter on holidays and take her grandson to swim lessons.

Since 2020, The Freedom Project at SF Public Defender's Office has helped 88 individuals reunite with their families. We have eliminated an estimated 1,000 years of incarceration and all the associated costs, saving California taxpayers approximately $150 million dollars. The Freedom Project is just one of the public defender resentencing units around the state at risk if the PDPP funding does not get restored in the state budget by June 15.

Governor Newsom has cut PDPP funding from his proposed budget for the past two years. Thankfully, the state Legislature and Governor restored most of the funding in last year's final budget. This year, the Assembly and Senate voted once again to restore PDPP funding in its joint legislative budget plan. Final negotiations between the budget chairs and the Governor are in progress and nothing is guaranteed.

Despite apparent deficits, the state budget routinely provides billions of dollars to law enforcement agencies, prisons, and prosecutors. These investments lead to more people, including a disproportionate number of Black and brown Californians, in our jails and prisons at more costs to taxpayers, but not safer and stronger communities. Public defender offices receive very little state funding, so the PDPP pilot program - which represents less than 0.01% of the state budget - is a smart investment that saves the state money and helps right the racial and economic wrongs that have plagued our criminal legal system for so long, as recognized by other recent legislation, like the California Racial Justice Act.

While it's important that the state fund the final year of the PDPP pilot, investments in resentencing and reentry deserve permanent funding so we don't lose momentum on reducing mass incarceration and safely returning individuals who have shown their readiness to return to their families and contribute to our communities.

The PDPP is proving that reducing mass incarceration is possible, and it can be done in a way that furthers public safety, saves money, and ultimately restores hope.


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