Between 1984 and 2005, California built 21 new state prisons — and filled them. The state prison population ballooned from roughly 50,000 to about 173,000 over that time period.
California opened a new prison as recently as 2013.
But now, with a projected $54 billion deficit caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state leaders are looking to sharply reverse course and downsize the state’s hulking prison system.
In his May budget revision, Newsom proposed closing two prisons — quickly — over the next two years, a move that would save the state an estimated $400 million per year.
“I made a commitment when I ran for office,” Newsom said during a budget press conference on May 14. “That's my intention, to shut down a state prison to continue to invest more and more in education.”
Newsom hasn’t said yet which prisons would be closed.
There are other changes embedded in the governor’s plan that would shorten the amount of time some prisoners spend behind bars by allowing inmates to access rehabilitation programs more quickly and earn more time off their sentences for good behavior. The Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts the state could reduce the inmate population by nearly 11,000 by 2024, and calculates that more than two prisons can be closed without causing overcrowding elsewhere.
Advocates for criminal justice reform were quick to applaud the proposal.
“It’s long overdue. This is a state that has needed to reduce corrections costs for many decades,” said Lenore Anderson, founder and president of Californians for Safety and Justice, which advocates for reducing incarceration. “The best way to do that is to reduce the number of people incarcerated and close prisons.”