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Janet Weil grows emotional during a rally held in part by the ACLU and Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to unveil a "People's Budget Fix," which includes a death penalty moratorium, closing the state's youth prisons, drug treatment, and Three Strikes reform outside Oakland's Elihu Harris State Building, on Thursday, July 30, 2009 in Oakland, Calif. (Sean Donnelly/Staff)

OAKLAND — California could save billions of dollars per year through sensible criminal justice reforms rather than by revoking aid to its neediest residents, activists and state lawmakers said Thursday.

About 75 people chanted slogans and listened as speakers touted a "People's Budget Fix" outside the state office building on Clay Street, organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the Drug Policy Alliance and Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS).

Zachary Norris, director of the Ella Baker Center's Books Not Bars program, noted California has vastly increased its prison spending in the past 25 years, but education spending has barely kept up with inflation.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing a historic budget deficit and its accompanying historic opportunity for reform, "rather than charting a new course for California, basically just slammed on the gas," Norris said. "The vast majority of Californians support sensible criminal justice reforms."

Those could include closing the state's Division of Juvenile Justice youth prisons, which activists say fall short on education and health care while producing a high recidivism rate, and shifting responsibility and funding to local programs to save the state $1 billion over five years. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said a sensible first step is passage of her AB999 to keep the Division of Juvenile Justice from disciplining inmates with time extensions on their parole dates, and to create a system in which they can earn time credits for program participation and good behavior.

The ACLU says all current death sentences — California now has 683 on death row, but has executed only 14 since 1978 — should be converted to life terms without possibility of parole, and new death sentences should be suspended for five years to save $1 billion in that time.

The Drug Policy Alliance wants community-based health responses to minor drug offenses to save $5.5 billion in five years, yet this latest budget deal slashes Prop. 36 treatment-not-jail funding to a sixth of last year's spending. And FACTS proposes limiting Three Strikes penalties to those convicted of violent crimes, saving more than $1 billion per year.

Instead, activists said, Sacramento seems intent on victimizing California's most vulnerable.

"This budget is criminal, it is state-sponsored neglect and abuse of children," said Sacramento State University Professor of Social Work Lynn Cooper, describing the far-reaching effects of an $80 million blow to child welfare services funding.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, said it's embarrassing that Legislative Democrats let this happen. Rather than letting the Republican minority "stare us down," he said, Democrats must stand their ground. "We are not going to cut any more. "... We are not going to hurt the future of California any more."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear later Thursday said that the budget "contains criminal justice reforms including parole and sentencing reforms. It cuts $1.2 billion from the Corrections budget this year while protecting billions in education funding." The governor and legislative Republicans disagree on how to make that cut and will try to settle those differences next month.

Norris' voice broke as he thanked the rally's attendees.

"At the end of the day, it's not about economics, it's about people's lives," he said, likening his hope for reform in the wake of this week's deep budget cuts to the day's weather. "It's cloudy, you can barely see the sun, but you can feel it — you can always feel the sun."