Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Executive Director Daniel Macallair hailed the long-sought shift.
“To reduce the number of people in confinement, we need to reduce the institutions of confinement,” Macallair said.
Newsom in January said he planned to close a single unspecified adult prison sometime in the next five years. With earlier releases often predicated on inmates participating in rehabilitation programs, his revised plan seeks to close one of the state’s 34 prisons by mid-2022 and a second a year later, eventually saving $400 million annually.
His revised budget “reflects what California voters have known for a long time — that continued wasteful spending on failed prisons is bad for safety and our budgets,” said Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which pushes for shorter prison sentences.
State Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, an accountant and the ranking Republican on two corrections oversight committees, welcomed the savings but said it might be even cheaper to use more private prisons, something the state has committed to ending. Prisons are often remote communities’ major employer, he cautioned, saying the governor is also imperiling unionized prison employees.
Democratic lawmakers who control Assembly and Senate oversight committees did not respond to requests for comment.
Closing eight fire camps would save a projected $7.4 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and double that in future years. Newsom wants to spend $200 million to hire 600 professional state firefighters and support personnel, in part to make up for a dwindling pool of prisoner fire crews because of earlier releases.
Even with the proposed cuts, the reform group Californians United for a Responsible Budget objected that the state’s projected $13.4 billion corrections budget would be an all-time high, and joined other reformers in calling for even more redirected spending.
UC Irvine criminologist Keramet Reiter said downsizing prisons makes sense, particularly since California’s are among the nation’s most expensive per inmate and historically have done a poor job of rehabilitation. But she said sending young offenders to state-run treatment programs is preferable to shifting them to county-run lockups.
Overall crime hasn’t spiked despite years of earlier prisoner paroles, and has generally declined despite thousands of additional prison and jail releases due to the coronavirus, Reiter said, citing a study by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California last month of preliminary crime reports from Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco.
Crime Victims Alliance Director Christine Ward fears the state will reach a tipping point if more criminals are on the streets as the governor proposes cutting parole and probation programs.
“We’re not talking about your small-time drug dealer. We’re talking about the most serious and violent felons in our state. That’s what’s left in our prisons,” she said.