canada africa partner reservation As state considers budget deficit, empty prisons must close – Marin Independent Journal

As state considers budget deficit, empty prisons must close – Marin Independent Journal


California is facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, forcing lawmakers and the governor to make painful decisions. No one wants less money for their child’s education, road maintenance, environmental progress or other essential services.

However, there is one area where savings can and should be made: prisons. Thousands of prison beds in California are not in use. Simply consolidating and closing some facilities could ultimately save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

This can be achieved safely thanks to important reforms that have addressed our state’s incarceration crisis and reduced the prison population. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, nearly 130,000 people were in state custody in 2019; by the end of last year, that number had fallen to 96,000, a decline of about 25%.

Today, the state’s prison population has dropped to about 93,000. That leaves a surplus of about 15,000 prison beds, a number expected to grow to 19,000 in four years as the population continues to decline. It is fiscally irresponsible to maintain these beds while social safety net programs are at stake.

The empty beds mean that, in addition to prison surpluses, we continue to incur unnecessary billions in staffing, operations and maintenance costs. Consolidating and deactivating prisons offers a simple way to address the state’s long-term budget deficit.

Governor Gavin Newsom has closed two prisons and eight yards — each state prison typically consists of several yards — and terminated one private prison contract, with another prison closure planned next year. Even with these cuts, however, the vacancies are equivalent to another four or five empty prisons.

New York offers an example of what is possible. With a prison population cut in half since 1999, the state has closed dozens of facilities in recent years. Governor Kathy Hochul has proposed closing five more in the coming fiscal year.

California should follow suit. The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recently estimated that the state could save $1 billion annually in operating costs and another $2 billion in capital expenditures by closing five prisons. Otherwise, the agency expects one-fifth of the state’s prison capacity to remain unused.

A billion dollars a year could not only help close these and future gaps, but also support real public safety measures: safety net programs, education, housing, and workforce development. The state’s current corrections budget is nearly $15 billion. The state general fund budget for the University of California? Less than $5 billion.

Do we want updated textbooks or surplus prison beds? Desperately in need of affordable housing or unnecessary prison sites? Should we pay people to look at an empty cell or to build transport infrastructure?

The Legislature should consider requiring corrections officers to rein in our sprawling prison system. Fortunately, a House committee last month passed legislation that provides a roadmap for corrections officials to gradually and practically reduce excess capacity to 2,500, the number they say they need to maintain operational flexibility. The bill also provides for situations in which the Department of Correction can argue that an increase in the number of beds is justified.