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California’s Budget Deficit Will Force Difficult Cuts. Cutting Back on Prisons Should Be the Easiest.

The state has a surplus of 15,000 prison beds. Consolidating and deactivating prisons could free up billions of dollars for safety net programs, education, housing and workforce development.

A guard tower at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, Calif
A guard tower at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, Calif. (Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
California is facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit that will require lawmakers and the governor to make painful decisions. Nobody wants less funding for their child’s school, road maintenance, environmental progress or other essential services.

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

This can be accomplished safely thanks to important reforms that have confronted our state’s incarceration crisis and reduced its 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 dropped to 96,000, a decrease of about 25 percent.

Today the state’s prison population is down to roughly 93,000. That leaves a surplus of about 15,000 prison beds, a number that is expected to grow to 19,000 in four years as the prison population continues to decline. It’s fiscally irresponsible to maintain those beds while social safety net programs are on the chopping block.

The empty beds mean that beyond the excess prisons, we’re continuing to incur unnecessary billions in staff, operations and maintenance costs. Consolidating and deactivating prisons provides a straightforward way to address the state’s budget deficit over the long term.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has closed two prisons and eight yards — each state prison typically comprises several yards — and discontinued one private prison contract, with another prison closure slated for next year. Even with these reductions, however, the vacancies are equivalent to four or five more empty prisons.

New York state offers an example of what’s possible. With a prison population that has halved since 1999, the state has closed dozens of facilities in recent years. Gov. 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 in operating expenses annually and up to an additional $2 billion in capital expenses by closing five prisons. Otherwise, the office expects one-fifth of the state’s prison capacity to go unused.

A billion dollars a year could not only help close this and future deficits 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’s general fund budget for the University of California? Under $5 billion.

Do we want updated school textbooks or surplus prison beds? Desperately needed affordable housing or unneeded prison yards? Should we pay people to watch an empty cell or build transportation infrastructure?

The Legislature should consider requiring corrections officials to rein in our sprawling prison system. Fortunately, an Assembly committee recently passed legislation that provides a road map for corrections officials to gradually and practically reduce excess capacity to 2,500, the number they have said they need to maintain operational flexibility. The bill also allows for situations in which the corrections department can make the case that an increase in beds is justified.

We understand that the administration is grappling with a need to invest more in rehabilitation as well as court mandates on prison capacity. The corrections department has struggled for many years to maximize rehabilitation and reduce recidivism. We believe making smart reductions to prison spending will free up more funding for community investment and rehabilitation, making Californians safer.

Assembly Bill 2178 answers the governor’s call for prison capacity reductions driven by data and need. It provides a pragmatic and flexible framework for such decisions. It also aligns with Newsom’s vision of a fiscally prudent, forward-thinking California.

Every dollar we spend on incarceration is one we don’t spend on building homes, supporting students and fighting climate change. With so many vital programs in jeopardy, we have a moral imperative to put the broader needs of Californians ahead of empty prisons.

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Phil Ting is a Democratic California Assembly member from San Francisco and the author of AB 2178. Amber-Rose Howard is the executive director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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