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Closing California prisons to save taxpayers money, reports budget watchdog agency

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(The Center Square) – A nonpartisan fiscal watchdog agency that advises the California Legislature is calling for closure of five additional state prisons to help reduce the state budget deficit, the gap between spending and income.

“The Governor proposes reductions to [the] California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s funding to account for previous capacity reductions and for the planned deactivation of a prison in March 2025 (Chuckwalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County),” according to a recent report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). “In addition, the budget reflects operation of nearly 15,000 empty beds in 2024-25, which is projected to grow to about 19,000 by 2028. This means the state could deactivate around five additional prisons.”

Closing five prisons will save the state budget over $1 billion, according to the LAO report. California operates 32 prisons currently.

The Newsom administration indicates that closing five state prisons “could create challenges, such as reducing the availability of treatment and reentry programs,” according to the LAO. The agency holds “that, while mitigating such challenges could create some new costs, these would be far less than the nearly $1 billion needed to continue operating five prisons. Accordingly, we recommend that the Legislature direct CDCR to begin planning to reduce capacity by deactivating prisons and report on how to mitigate any resulting challenges.”

In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom forecast a $38 billion state budget deficit. Subsequently, the LAO has sounded an alarm of California’s deficit ballooning to $73 billion, or double the January estimate.

“The Governor’s January budget proposes a total of about $14.5 billion to operate CDCR in 2024-25,” the LAO report states, “mostly from the General Fund,” a taxpayer-funded pool of money. Gov. Newsom’s budget also proposes total spending of $83.3 million, $959,000 of which is from the General Fund, for CDCR capital outlay projects in 2024-25.

“The status quo is no longer sustainable,” Amber-Rose Howard, executive director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, said in a statement. “California must enshrine a commitment to close at least five more prisons in the 2024-25 final budget due in June, and direct those savings to community-based resources to increase safety, reentry programs and supporting towns where prisons close.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Newsom’s remains focused on changing San Quentin State Prison into a prisoner rehabilitation center. That construction project costs $360 million. In January, Newsom’s Advisory Council for the San Quentin project recommended cutting the building cost by $120 million, according to CURB.

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