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On May 15, 2013, Governor Brown submitted a budget trailer bill to appoint the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) Executive Officer to be the BSCC Board Chair. Additionally, the bill changes the conflict of interest laws to allow for public employees to vote on the distribution of funds to their own agencies. This conflict of interest should cause concern for policymakers, reform advocates, and practitioners alike.

The relationship between the Board Chair and the Executive Officer sets the tone for the Board’s future success. The Penal Code provides that while the Executive Officer is appointed by the Governor and is the administrative lead, the Board Chair is designated as the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and shapes the agenda. A good partnership between the two should result in constructive disagreement and open dialogue, thus fostering innovation and ultimately successful outcomes.

Keeping the positions distinct establishes a balance that draws on the expertise of both parties. It also ensures that neither role oversteps their authority or works only to invest in their personal interest. It’s a checks and balances system that is ingrained in every part of American government.

Why then, would Governor Brown move away from this system? U.S. corporations have long merged these roles, to provide unilateral leadership through which change can occur faster. This relies heavily on the knowledge and integrity of the person selected, and can result in abuses of power, as seen in the recent financial crisis. California has taken a strong stance on ensuring safeguards against providing this kind of concentration of authority, including a separation of powers clause in the state constitution and a ballot initiative process.

The BSCC was formerly established within the CDCR as the California Standards Authority, but was recreated as an independent board on July 1, 2012. One of the Board’s responsibilities is to monitor the conditions in state prisons, thus its new autonomy provides a safeguard from a conflict of interest. Similarly, the BSCC is charged with distribution of state and federal public safety and construction funds to county law enforcement agencies. While the board consists predominantly of law enforcement officials, the current conflict of interest laws protect the Board from potential abuses of power and funding allocation mismanagement. Additionally, the dual leadership and conflict of interest laws provide some opportunity for a more varied dialogue, and for community partners to be heard. 

While the lethargic pace of the BSCC’s progress is frustrating, we should be wary of placing all BSCC leadership responsibilities onto one person or removing important safeguards for funding allocations. Doing so diminishes the knowledge base and experience of BSCC leadership and provides less opportunity for innovation, diversity and reform.