California’s Proposed Prison Budget Cuts Leaves Advocates ‘Cautiously Optimistic’

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By Darlin Navarrete 

SACRAMENTO, CA – Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) Monday reported, “Advocates are cautiously optimistic about the proposed reductions in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) budget as reflected in the final June budget agreement.”

Despite these proposed cuts being important, there are concerns regarding more stable plans for more prison closures, stated CURB, noting prison closures are essential “to ensure promised savings will actually come to pass.”

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-SF) said his AB 2178 “is a structured approach to addressing the state’s empty prison bed issue, allowing for the State to use saved dollars for critical needs such as education, housing, and other integral services, as opposed to sustaining empty beds.”

California finds itself facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, and one sector where the state can implement cost cuts is prison spending, Ting argued.

Assemblymember Ting said, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s (LAO) report in February of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the number of incarcerated persons was approximately 130,000 (as of 2019).

The total number in Jan. 2024 of individuals incarcerated was around 93,000 showing a steady decline which is “expected to remain low through June 2028,” Ting added.

“Per the LAO, by 2028, the State could have nearly 19,000 empty prison beds, equal to about one-fifth of the state’s total prison capacity,” Ting said, adding that the cost of around $132,000 to incarcerate an individual with 90 percent of beds “is not fiscally prudent.

Ting said the LAO notes that “further capacity reductions would create significant savings.”

Over the three-year mark, the finalized budget for 2024-25 consists of a $750 million reduction in corrections spending, explains CURB, adding, “This plan is significantly more than the Governor’s initial proposal but includes his original plan to deactivate 46 housing units across 13 prisons.”

CURB said the budget prioritizes protecting programs that exhibit rehabilitation, reentry, and family connection. Originally the price tag for the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center was set at $360 million, the budget confirmed a total reduction of $120 million for this project stated CURB.

CURB explains that “CDCR has continued to use the so-called ‘California Model’ as a justification to avoid prison closures and keep operating empty prison space, despite the absence of substantive information on what this ‘model’ will ultimately entail.”

Amber-Rose Howard, executive director of CURB, said, “The significant reductions in the CDCR budget reflect our persistent advocacy efforts and strong leadership from the legislature. However, the lack of prison closures is a glaring omission. Without closing prisons, these proposed reductions may never fully materialize, which should be a red flag for the public and spur the legislature to additional action.”

Howard continued, “Gov. Newsom can name prisons to close outside of the budget cycle, as demonstrated with the announcement of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison’s closure. We urge Newsom to take decisive action now and close the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco. CRC’s closure would not only deliver significant cost savings but also address critical issues related to the facility’s conditions and operations.”

CURB said it has been working alongside organizers from Riverside County who are in support of a petition they launched to shut down CRC.

From a survey of more than 2,000 incarcerated individuals, CRC was categorized as one of the top prisons to shut down due to high temperatures, violence resulting from staff, and poor accessibility to a variety of positive programs offered by the prison, CURB states, noting the City of Norco’s official legislative platform includes the closure of CRC.

CURB’S Howard added, “These are two immediate actions the administration can take to concretize these cuts to CDCR: close Norco now and sign Assembly Bill 2178––a bill that would create a new mechanism to reduce excess prison capacity over time––if and when it passes in the legislature. CURB will support the administration in selecting prisons to close and organizing with individual towns.”

CURB Statewide Coordinator Daz Proctor said, “We thank the administration for preserving vital services that were at risk from the May revision. However, the current budget projections indicate a decrease in the state prison population to 90,860 in 2024-25, down from previous estimates.

“Maintaining underutilized facilities continues to drain resources that could be better allocated to essential community services. The reductions to CDCR are the bare minimum, just scratching the surface for possible savings.”

At least five more state prisons could close, per a growing number of lawmakers —and the state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, said CURB.

Budget Director of the California Budget and Policy Center Scott Graves encouraged state leaders to save money by shutting down additional prisons over reducing the social safety net, said CURB.

Graves also highlighted that the closing of five facilities could save $1 billion, as there are around 15,000 empty prison beds across the system, CURB adds. And, in an interview with the Washington Post, Graves emphasized “It’s a massive waste of resources.”

CURB cites, “Critics have raised concerns about the public perception of prison closures in an era of increasingly ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric, and the potential economic impact on towns and workers.”

CURB’s Proctor said, “Prison towns need a just transition––investments in jobs and economic development. Prisons can be successfully repurposed. Labor and advocates for reduced corrections spending are natural allies because we want to reinvest savings from closed prisons back into the workforce and communities. We believe the administration and legislature need to do more.

“Despite proposed cuts and reductions, there will remain a surplus of 10,000 and growing empty prison beds. It still costs $132,000 to incarcerate a person, with 90 percent of the cost attributed to salaries and facility maintenance. Using funds to maintain empty prison beds is not a good use of taxpayer funds and does not improve public safety.”

So far, no early releases have been associated with prison closures CURB disclosed.

CURB’s Howard argued, “California needs a practical roadmap for prison closures that meets the needs of multiple stakeholders. Newsom has the opportunity to show the nation that California is fiscally responsible on state corrections.

“We urge Governor Newsom to include prison closures in his vision to better serve the most vulnerable Californians. Otherwise, he’s just leaving money on the table that could generate ongoing savings and truly address California’s out-of-control corrections spending.”

About The Author

Darlin Navarrete is a first-generation DACA student with a bachelor's in Political Science with a concentration in Race, Ethnicity, and Politics from UCLA. Being an honors student, Navarrete enjoys an academic challenge and aspires to attend law school and become an immigration attorney. Her passion for minority rights and representation began at a very young age where she identified injustices her family encountered and used them as outlets to expand her knowledge on immigrant rights and educate her family. Outside of academia, Navarrete loves spending time with her family, working on cars, and doing community service.

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