Newsom has approved three California prison closures but resists pressure to shutter more

SACRAMENTO —  Gov. Gavin Newsom went far beyond the promise he made in his first year in office to close at least one California state prison. But now, he is resisting calls from criminal justice advocates and liberal state lawmakers to shutter five more penitentiaries.

Shortly after taking office, Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty and has approved the closure of three prisons since 2019, but his administration appears to be pulling back from a 2022 budget proposal that considered “right-sizing California’s prison system” by possibly closing even more facilities. The administration fears that operating the state’s existing 31 prisons remains necessary to accommodate California’s fluctuating inmate population, enhance rehabilitation programs and avoid a repeat of the overcrowding that led to federal court intervention over a decade ago.

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“The governor has a long track record of being on the progressive side of criminal justice. His belief that we can reduce prison populations and improve public safety is achievable. That’s the core of his goal,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford University. “But the question of closing more prisons is complicated and goes beyond public safety. I don’t think they go as hand-in-hand as people want them to.”

Newsom finds himself in a precarious political spot. Crime was among the top issues that Californians want the Legislature and governor to work on in 2024, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released in February. But no matter what he decides to do, large swaths of California voters will disagree. On the one hand, he could disappoint liberal lawmakers and others advocating for the end of California’s tough-on-crime era of mass incarceration. On the other, he’d provoke moderates and conservatives concerned that prison and criminal justice reforms have gone far enough.

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Alameda), both members of the Legislative Black Caucus whose priorities include prison reform, say they want more prisons to close.

Bradford said that he supports a more “holistic vision” of public safety.

“Investing in rehabilitation will pay dividends by reducing the revolving door of recidivism and will allow formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully re-integrate when they return home to their communities and families,” he told The Times in an email.

While serving in her former role as chair of the Assembly’s budget subcommittee on public safety, Bonta was outspoken about the opportunity California had to close more prisons.

“We have an insurmountable budget deficit,” she said, referring to the state’s $73-billion budget shortfall estimated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Bonta said the deficit is forcing the legislature to look for cuts.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, which advises state lawmakers, suggested that over the next four years the state can save up to $1 billion annually if it closes five more prisons.

Sen. Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks), the vice chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review committee, told The Times that he disagreed with the prospect of more closures. He said there is a debate over whether crime rates are up and, because of that, uncertainty about whether prison populations will rise in the coming years. Niello also said the enactment of tougher new laws, including a ballot measure to reform Proposition 47, could lead to longer prison sentences for property and drug crimes and in turn higher incarceration rates.

Niello said closing five additional state correctional facilities would take capacity down to a “dangerously low level.”

The Newsom administration has no plans to close more prisons, said H.D. Palmer, a representative from the Department of Finance. Palmer told The Times that prison populations “can and do” fluctuate but said the numbers would not go up as dramatically as some worry.

“One thing we don’t want to go back to is where we had triple bunking in cells,” Palmer said. “But I don’t think we’d return to old numbers.”

The administration has to comply with a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that deemed overcrowding of prisons unconstitutional and ruled that prisons cannot exceed 137.5% of capacity. That same year, the state passed a law that relocated low-level offenders without prior serious or violent felonies to serve their time in a county jail instead of state prison.

There have been other efforts to reduce population swelling in the last decade.

Voters have passed various ballot measures, including Proposition 36 in 2012, which allows eligible defendants convicted of nonviolent drug possession charges to enter treatment instead of going to jail or prison; Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced some drug and property theft crimes from felonies to a misdemeanors; and Proposition 57 in 2016, which allows parole consideration of people convicted of nonviolent felonies, once they’ve already completed a prison term for their primary offense.

One year after the passage of Proposition 47, the prison and jail populations declined by 6% and 8.7%, respectively, according to a 2018 PPIC report. The report also noted court-ordered population reduction measures contributed to these dips.

The legislative analysts report noted that the administration has said that closing more prisons could create challenges, such as reducing the availability of treatment and reentry programs. The administration also states concerns over whether unexpected population increases in the future could raise the risks of overcrowding or even eliminate the necessity for prisoners to work some part-time and full-time jobs that provide them with a “meaningful way to occupy their time,” according to the LAO report.

But the legislative analyst’s report also found that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — which consumes $14.5 billion of the governor’s proposed 2024-2025 budget — should be able shut down more facilities due to dwindling costs.

The report said the department’s expenses have declined, specifically mentioning fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases, alleviating healthcare costs. The department spends $4.5 billion annually on healthcare, including mental health and dental work.

The report also cites a shrinking prison population, which fell by 34,000 over the last five years, the largest period of decline in the last decade. The population is projected to fall from 94,000 today to 85,000 inmates by 2027. There are currently 15,000 empty beds, and the analyst’s office projects an increase to 19,000 empty beds by 2028.

“The reality is that this generally means the upper bunk may be vacant, but the lower bunk is occupied by an incarcerated individual,” Palmer told The Times in an email. The population in some facilities still far exceeds the design capacity of one incarcerated person per cell or bunk.

The Newsom administration argues that having a lower population in a prison provides opportunities for more effective rehabilitation, since fewer people will be competing for the same programs.

While in theory, fewer inmates mean the state should be spending less, the department has accrued significant costs due to raises to correctional officers’ salaries and pensions and in part due to COVID-19.

The department estimates that it will save the state $778 million starting next year, after the closure of three state prisons: Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in 2021, California Correctional Center in Susanville in 2023, and Chuckawalla State Prison in Blythe, scheduled to close in March 2025.

California has also closed portions of various facilities across the state, and at the end of March will terminate its lease with the last private prison, California City Correctional Facility.

Californians United For a Responsible Budget, a statewide coalition whose mission is to identify wasteful prison spending, along with other organizations have gone as far as to demand the closure of 10 more prisons. Their requests stretch beyond saving the state money and argue it is a way for the state to repurpose land and invest back into communities, including those where the local economies are impacted by prison closures.

The department remains under pressure to trim its budget. Senate lawmakers recently asked agency officials to consider cutting costs by as much as $2 billion, or 15% of its total budget, in addition to what the department planned to save through its recent prison closures.

Scott Graves, the director of research at California Budget & Policy Center, told The Times that while the state should close more prisons, he is skeptical whether the money saved from closures would resolve budget woes in the immediate short term.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

As California closes prisons, the cost of locking someone up hits new record at $132,860

The cost of imprisoning one person in California has increased by more than 90% in the past decade, reaching a record-breaking $132,860 annually, according to state finance documents.

Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

That’s nearly twice as expensive as the annual undergraduate tuition — $66,640 — at the University of Southern California, the most costly private university in the state.

California’s spending per inmate jumped steeply during the COVID-19 pandemic and it continued to increase despite recent cost-cutting moves, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent move to close three state prisons. 

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It’s propelled by lucrative employee compensation deals and costly mandates to improve health care behind bars, according to fiscal analyses by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. Newsom’s most recent budget proposal includes $18.1 billion for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, up from $15.7 billion when he took office in 2019.

Some lawmakers and advocates have argued California should focus on rehabilitation and shut down additional prisons to save money in the face of what the governor’s office projects to be a $38 billion deficit. 

Last year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office suggested the state could close as many as five more state prisons because of California’s declining inmate population.

That would stand to save upwards of $1 billion in operating costs, and even more money on unfunded capital improvement projects, the report said.

Newsom’s three closures and the cancellation of a contract for a fourth privately run prison save the state an estimated $667 million over the next year, according to the Department of Finance, but the savings are not enough to offset increased operational and employee costs. 

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents 26,000 prison guards, last summer negotiated a contract with successive 3% raises and other perks that will cost the state roughly $1 billion over the next three years. The prison doctors’ union, which represents 1,700 employees, also negotiated a two-year contract with a combined 5.5% general salary increase and a range of other incentives. The Newsom administration estimates it will cost $234 million over three years.

But Newsom, at least for now, is not recommending any additional prison closures.  Instead, his state budget proposal recommends keeping prisons open with fewer inmates in them to provide more space for rehabilitative programs.

“The administration is not currently proposing any additional prison closures,” H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the Department of Finance, said in a statement. “We remain committed to meeting the needs of staff and the incarcerated population while right-sizing California’s prison system as the prison population declines over time, and to addressing space needs as the state transforms the carceral system to one more focused on rehabilitation.”

Opponents of mass incarceration say the administration’s argument for keeping empty prison beds open doesn’t align with how the money is spent.

“This is a cash grab by (the corrections department),” said Brian Kaneda, deputy director of the prison abolitionist group Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Newsom has touted transforming San Quentin State Prison into a rehabilitation center, but advocates like Kaneda and state advisory groups say the plan is vague.

Rehabilitation costs, which currently include prisoner education and activities, only make up a fraction of total correctional spending — roughly 3% — over the past decade, according to state budget documents.

In a written statement, the corrections department said its spending plan “judiciously uses taxpayer dollars in a manner that balances the need for cost-efficiency while maximizing public safety, the wellbeing of incarcerated people and successful rehabilitation.”

Costs in California prisons

The actual cost to house a prisoner is much closer to $15,000, said Caitlin O’Neil, a criminal justice analyst for the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. Direct costs include things such as food and clothing while the remaining 91% of spending per prisoner comes from fixed costs like salaries and facility upkeep

She found that compensation for employees at the corrections department increased by 43% between 2010 and 2019 — from $110,000 to $158,000 — nearly triple the rate of inflation.

Last summer, the state prison guard contract included $10,000 bonuses for officers at certain prisons and a new guaranteed 401k contribution in addition to regular pension benefits.

The state’s current savings from prison closures, about $200 million per facility, is not nearly enough to offset those pay and benefits boosts.

“We would have to close one or more prisons per year just to offset employee compensation increases that happen regularly,” O’Neil said.

The peace officers’ union did not respond to requests for comment. Prison labor advocates often argue that jobs are dangerous and difficult to staff, warranting high compensation benefits.

The union can be a force in the Capitol. It has contributed $2.2 million to the campaigns of current state legislators and it gave $1.75 million to help Newsom defeat a 2021 recall campaign. It also recently contributed $1 million to support Proposition 1, the measure Newsom placed on the March ballot to build housing and treatment facilities for people with serious mental health conditions.

Despite a precipitous decline in prison populations, corrections spending has remained relatively stable. In 2018, the average daily prison population topped 120,000 compared to a projected 90,240 people in 2024. That’s a 25% decrease. In contrast, correctional spending as a share of the total state budget has barely dropped in the same time period from 7% to 6%.

What should be good news to opponents of mass incarceration — decreasing populations — has not resulted in a leaner criminal justice system. 

“If you have $700 million in annual savings from prison closure, but you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new prison infrastructure and giving prison guards a billion dollar raise (over three years), that starts to show why the math isn’t mathing,” Kaneda said.

But wholesale cuts to correctional spending don’t necessarily always equate to better prison conditions, said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University.

“If you don’t cut (budgets) carefully, that makes prisons worse places to be. It makes them more dangerous, more traumatic,” Pfaff said. “I say that as someone who is not a fan at all of prisons as a general institution.”

Prison medical costs soar

Medical care is one area of increased spending where the state, under court order, is trying to improve prison conditions.

The average cost per person for medical care has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and total health care spending by the corrections department has increased by about 67%. Although the recent prison closures have cut about 2,700 correctional positions, medical spending has eaten up those savings.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

More California Prisoners Are Requesting Gender-Affirming Health Care, Including Surgeries

The number of California prisoners requesting gender-affirming health care more than doubled last year, and the state’s corrections agency expects the trend to continue even as the overall state inmate population is projected to decline.

The estimate comes from budget documents detailing the agency’s responsibilities for two groundbreaking policies the state adopted over the last seven years.

One, in 2017, made California the first state to set standards that would grant gender affirmation surgery to state prison inmates. It followed the state’s approval of surgery for a transgender woman serving a life sentence. She was later transferred to a women’s prison. 

The other, a 2021 law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, requires that every person upon entering prison be asked gender-specific questions to determine whether they should be housed in a men’s or women’s facility.

Since the changes took effect, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that the number of transgender, intersex and nonbinary inmates consistently grew each year, rising to 1,617 last year. That’s a 234% increase over 2017, according to the documents. 

“The vulnerable, transgender and transgender diverse population in CDCR has grown and continues to grow and there are enduring needs that need to be met,” Trisha Wallis, a department senior psychologist who specializes in gender healthcare, said during a budget committee hearing in March.

The agency this year sought a small boost in funding — $2.2 million — to provide the mandated care. The agency’ request was not controversial and moved through the Legislature without pushback this spring. Budget negotiations between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature are expected to conclude this week. 

Wallis at the hearing said the program was originally meant to “address equitable access” to safe and optimal gender-affirming care, but she acknowledged that staff shortages led to treatment backlogs. 

Backlog grows for gender-affirming care

As of December, 20 inmates since 2017 had received gender-affirming surgery. Another 150 surgeries had been approved, but not completed, according to the budget documents. 

In the 2021-22 California government budget year,  270 inmates requested gender-affirming surgeries – up from 99 the previous year. 

The state projects 348 inmates will request gender-affirming treatment this year, and 462 next year. The corrections agency says its staff can evaluate no more than three requests each week.

The agency also has received over 364 housing transfer requests since 2021. Only 35 of those were approved and sent to the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

Advocates for transgender and nonbinary inmates have urged the state to move faster in providing the surgeries and evaluating other inmates’ requests to transfer to facilities that better suit their needs.

Some of them criticized the agency’s budget request, arguing the state’s $15 billion-a-year prison system already had plenty of money to carry out the policies.

“It’s ridiculous. $2 million for stuff they should already be doing?” said Alex Binsfeld, a policy analyst with TGI Justice Project, a San Francisco nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated transgender people. “I don’t think pumping any more money into CDCR is going to fix health care there.”

Transgender advocates also are on guard for signs that the state is refusing transfers for inmates who identify as transgender but have not received gender-affirming medical care. 

“Ultimately the housing question should not be a medical question,” said Jen Orthwein, a psychologist and lawyer who previously provided treatment to transgender inmates in prisons across California.

Terri Hardy, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said those fears are unfounded. 

“Incarcerated people are not required to have gender affirming surgery in order to transfer to an institution consistent with their gender identity,” Hardy wrote in an email to CalMatters.

Lawsuit challenges California prison transfers

Outside of the Capitol, some conservative-leaning and feminist groups have opposed the prison agency’s gender affirming policies. 

The Women’s Liberation Front, a feminist advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., sued the state in 2021 to halt certain transfers to the state’s women’s prison in Chowchilla. It argued the transfers put female inmates at greater risk of violence and sexual assault. The lawsuit is playing out in the U.S. Eastern District Court of California.

“The reality that men and women are factually, materially, immutably different, in ways that disadvantage women and necessitate attention to women’s unique needs, supports  protection of incarcerated women by providing women-only correctional facilities,” the lawsuit reads.

The Transgender Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief challenging thatsuit. The two liberal organizations contend the 2021 law allowing prison transfers protects vulnerable transgender inmates. 

Several states have followed California in adopting genders-affirming policies for prisoners. Massachusetts and Connecticut allow prisoners to be transferred to facilities according to their chosen gender identity. New Jersey, New York City and Rhode Island also require that inmates be housed at facilities appropriate to their gender.

Orthwein, the psychologist, urged the state to accommodate more care.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

State’s Juvenile Prison Workers Score $50,000 Bonuses

Gov. Gavin Newsom and six labor unions have struck a deal to give up to $50,000 in bonuses to keep juvenile prison workers on the job, as first reported by CalMatters in March.

Between now and next year, California taxpayers will pay about $54.5 million for the incentive payments, according to estimates by the Department of Finance. 

The contracts represent one of the largest retention bonuses the state has ever offered to employees.

A finance department spokesperson said the agreements estimate that 1,019 direct care and 211 non-direct care employees will meet the criteria for some amount of bonus.

The Division of Juvenile Justice, which is overseen by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is hoping the payments will help stave off worker shortages that have beset the agency since Newsom announced the division’s dismantling. All of California’s youth prisons are expected to close by June 30, 2023, sending youth offenders to county detention centers. The division is working to place juvenile justice employees in other state jobs inside the department. 

“The stipends … are part of a thoughtful and purposeful process to ensure consistency and public safety throughout the transition,” Vicky Waters, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told CalMatters in an email.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

CCPOA contract puts cash in prison guards’ wallets beyond raises

This article was originally published by The Sacramento Bee:

The latest tentative labor agreement with California’s correctional officers proves that there’s more than one way to boost employee compensation without calling it a “raise.”

While the new contract proposal for the 29,000 members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association contains modest salary bumps, other provisions put more money in their pockets now and later by changing everything from fitness pay rules to making some paid leave count toward the threshold for overtime.

Salaries for union members last year totaled about $2.1 billion, not including another $350 million for overtime, leave cashouts and other special payments, according to data from the State Controller’s Office.

Read more by clicking here. 

Gov. Brown Walks the Budget Tightrope

jerry-brownGov. Jerry Brown has unveiled the highly-anticipated revision to his annual state budget, teeing up final spending negotiations in Sacramento — largely with his fellow Democrats.

Despite a resurgence in California’s fiscal fortunes, including tax receipts some $2 billion in excess of estimates, “analysts are warning that California could be headed for more fiscal headaches as soon as next year,” the Wall Street Journal observed. “The state is constitutionally required to spend more on public education as revenue increases. This year’s revenue will establish a spending base for next year, meaning it could be harder for the state to balance its budget if the state’s income declines.”

Brown has made his reputation as governor holding the line on spending against steady pressure from his left. But Brown’s own favorite projects, including California’s high-speed rail plan, received his unwavering support, even drawing money away from expenditures favored by activists.

A selective windfall

Now, Brown has chosen to walk the budget tightrope in a way that will encourage his more profligate allies. Beneficiaries of Brown’s revised budget were set to include poorer Californians, unlawful immigrants and college students, as the San Jose Mercury News reported:

“With billions in better-than-expected revenue, Brown unveiled a $115.3 billion general fund spending plan that creates the state’s first-ever ‘earned income tax credit’ and would pay for Medi-Cal for some immigrants living in the state illegally.”

Brown’s revision also slipped in the results of a long-belabored deal with UC President Janet Napolitano, “who had demanded tens of millions of dollars more for her system to stave off 5 percent tuition hikes in each of the next five years,” as the Mercury News recalled.

But the revised budget plan went well beyond those measures, touching policy areas that have bedeviled Brown throughout much of his time in office.

Prison reform

Brown, for instance, used the revision to forge ahead with reforms to California’s prison system, which has been a virtual albatross around his neck since the Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its crowded incarcerated population.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, the new budget revision “calls for shrinking the number of inmates housed outside California in the next year by 4,000 — reducing related state spending by $73 million. As of this week, the state had a little more than 8,000 inmates in private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma, and another 6,250 prisoners in contracted lockups within the state.”

According to the Times, the cuts became possible because of the impact of Proposition 47, which thinned prisons’ ranks largely by slashing penalties and jail time for drug-related offenses. As CalWatchdog previously reported, although relatively few donors fueled the measure, Prop. 47 won the support of a substantial majority of voters in November.

Mixed reactions

In what has become a hallmark of his tenure in office, reactions to Brown’s adjusted numbers mixed praise with criticism. “We applaud the governor for putting money back into the pockets of those who work hard every day and pay their taxes – it’s the right move,” remarked Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, according to the Sacramento Bee. But, she added, Brown’s tax credit “will not end widespread poverty. That’s why Assembly Republicans have offered straightforward solutions to reform education and support the modern economy so every Californian can boost their earnings and quality of life.”

From the other side of the aisle, some Democrats registered disappointment with the limitations of Brown’s agreement on school funding. “We are pleased UC students and their families will avoid paying higher tuition next year,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. “But CSU, the workhorse of our higher education system, has been shortchanged. We have to support both of our public institutions of higher learning to make sure college is accessible to as many Californians as possible.”

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