California has a $38 billion deficit. So why are we still paying for prisons we don’t need?


California has a $38 billion deficit. So why are we still paying for prisons we don’t need?

Op-Ed, California Politics

Brian Kaneda

February 5, 2024

Facing a state budget deficit of at least $38 billion, Gov. Gavin Newsom should reconsider his expensive commitment to the state’s traditional system of mass incarceration. While insisting he will create a kinder and gentler kind of prison in California, the governor has authorized a $1 billion increase for correctional officers and hundreds of millions more for prison buildings, despite a steady decline in the inmate population and skyrocketing costs .

Prison expansion has not only contributed significantly to our budget deficits over the past thirty years. It also caused intergenerational harm to Black communities and other marginalized Californians, despite unprecedented public awareness of the systemic problems and wasteful spending endemic to state prisons.

It’s not that California voters, activists and lawmakers haven’t taken steps to address this. The 2011 prison realignment marked a turning point in reducing the prison population, although savings were often poorly managed and diverted to law enforcement rather than more effective community initiatives. It was supported by voter mandates, legal reforms, and cultural changes that ultimately confronted draconian punitive practices. At the height of the pandemic, thousands more were released from overcrowded prisons, pushing the state’s prison population below 100,000 for the first time in three decades.

And yet the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation continues to struggle with basic issues like providing mental health care, costing taxpayers millions in fines and preventing sexual assault. Prison guard pay, meanwhile, remains at three times the rate of inflation, pushing annual costs above $130,000 per inmate.

Newsom’s experiment with Scandinavian-style incarceration, also known as the California Model, does not adequately address the problems facing California prisons. It could even be a Trojan horse for even more irresponsible prison spending.

Although an overhyped wave of retail crime has been used to justify massive law enforcement spending in Newsom’s 2024-2025 budget proposal, crime rates remain near 30-year lows. Reviving tough-on-crime policies and dumping even more billions into prison systems should be unacceptable in a supposedly progressive state, especially as evidence-based solutions that would actually improve public safety remain severely underfunded.

California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projects a surplus of 20,000 state prison beds by 2027. Closing 10 state prisons could save billions to address budget issues and fund more effective public safety measures.

Newsom touts the potential savings from three prison closures under his watch but remains silent on plans for more, ignoring fellow Democrats in the Legislature and budget analysts who have called for closing five more prisons. The Governor of New York. Kathy Hochul’s decision to close five more state prisons for a total of 11 is bold. Newsom should take the lead on this, not play catch-up.

But prison closures alone will not be enough to address spiraling corrections spending. The state must also crack down on special interest groups, such as California corrections officials, who wield excessive power in Sacramento to ensure staffing and wage levels do not reverse future cuts.

Given the shortage, the corrections budget should prioritize the needs of incarcerated people and strive for their successful reintegration. The governors proposed a new $360 million building at San Quentin, the cost of which has been criticized by its own advisory board as representing a misallocation of resources. True rehabilitation is a challenge within prison boundaries and is not achieved through expensive infrastructure projects.

A responsible budget proposal should not abandon people on the margins of society. It is unacceptable to use prisons as a substitute for supportive housing or mental health facilities, housing people who have nowhere else to go. The solution to homelessness is housing first, and the answer to the mental health crisis is accessible care. That means spending on social welfare and infrastructure projects: treatment facilities, affordable housing and community-based reentry programs.

California has an opportunity to shift its focus before its budget is reviewed in May and approved by the Legislature in June. Closing prisons and expanding public services would reflect the needs and values ​​of our state while helping to fix our finances.

This is both a moral and a fiscal issue. There are too many jails and prisons in California, and despite our progress, too many people are locked up in them.

Brian Kaneda is deputy director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.


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