California Considers Downsizing State Prison System Amid Coronavirus Budget Woes

 (Monica Lam/CIR/KQED)

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.”

Discussions about closing prisons have bubbled up before, but the coronavirus pandemic has lent new urgency to the issue.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suspended intake of new prisoners in late March and began releasing certain prisoners early in response to alarm about the spread of COVID-19 in prison, where social distancing is nearly impossible.

About 1,000 state prison inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 — most of them clustered in a handful of prisons, with nearly half at a single prison —  the California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County.

“If there's anything this pandemic has brought to light, it's that the criminal justice system in its current form spreads poor health — beyond being ineffective financially,” Anderson said.

Since early April, CDCR has expedited the release of prisoners who are within 60 days of their scheduled release date and who are not doing time for violent crimes or sex offenses. Those measures alone have reduced the prison population by about 6,000 people — bringing the tally to 116,337 as of May 27.

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These reductions build on a roughly decade-long effort to reduce California’s prison population under pressure from lawsuits, court orders and a Supreme Court ruling.

In 2011, Assembly Bill 109 transferred responsibility for many lower-level criminals from the state to counties, while Proposition 47, the 2014 voter initiative, reduced sentences for many property and drug offenses. These reforms have allowed the state to steadily draw down the number of people behind bars, and the governor’s current proposal assumes a “projected continued decline.”

“Although it's a tragic thing to cite as the cause, if the virus causes the state to experiment with fewer people in prison and possibly eliminating some of the most obsolete prisons, then the court is going to look very kindly on that,” said Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg, who studies the criminal justice system.

As prison populations decrease, closing prisons makes fiscal sense, he added.

“It becomes almost like a kind of conventional business decision. It's almost like closing franchises,” Weisberg said. “You're reducing overhead.”

One of the heftiest parts of that overhead is staffing costs — pay and benefits for the correctional officers, administrators and program staff who run these institutions.

“On the whole, state prisons are in rural or small town areas where they are the heart of, or one of the key parts, of the economy of those places, Weisberg said. “Obviously, if you close prisons, you're weakening the economy in those places.”

Newsom acknowledged that challenge during his budget briefing. “It becomes very difficult, if you do make that determination and make it public, to recruit, retain personnel,” he said. “It could create all kinds of problems.”

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents correctional officers across the state, did not respond to requests for comment.

If the state prison system continues to shrink, more responsibility will fall to the counties where sentences for lower-level crimes are served out in county jails or under probation supervision.

“As long as a person is maintaining a crime-free lifestyle and not putting the community at risk, we know we can be successful with them in the community,” said Brian Richart, president of Chief Probation Officers of California. “So why not keep them in the community where it's less expensive to us as taxpayers to treat somebody?”

Richart, however, is concerned that the state’s budget woes would lead to reductions in rehabilitative programs and services and cuts in training for probation officers that he says are necessary to keeping criminals off the street.

“Probation has proven itself to be a successful alternative when we're resourced properly,” Richart said. “If we've got the right number of staff and the right type of staff providing the right type of interventions and clinical services and supports focusing on health and wellness for our clients, we show reductions in recidivism.”

Newsom’s revised budget continues previous plans to phase out private and public contract prisons and also proposes closing the state’s three youth prisons.

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State lawmakers, concerned the governor's proposal is rushed and short on key details, are now calling for more information on what criteria will be used to determine which adult prisons will be closed.

The LAO recommends CDCR rank prisons for closure based on criteria such as cost per bed and suggests no prison infrastructure projects be approved until the state has decided which prisons will be closed.

Lawmakers have until June 15 to pass a balanced budget — and decide whether to set in motion major changes to California's prison system.

“We have yet to know what the standards would be if we were to actually talk about closing a prison,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said at a budget hearing in the state Legislature earlier this week. “We want to make sure that what we're doing is correct ... not just financially, but programmatically.”

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