The coronavirus outbreak has turned out to be a get out of jail ticket for countless people behind bars, including in California where Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to balance the state’s budget could include closing prisons and reducing the inmate population by 11,000 people by 2024.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on how Newsom is trying to make up for the projected $54 billion deficit in part because of the cost of dealing with the virus:
In a revised budget plan unveiled this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed shuttering two state prisons within the next three years, ultimately saving the state about $400 million annually.
That’s a much faster timeline than the governor envisioned just a few months ago. His original budget in January proposed closing one prison in the next five years, if the inmate population continued its decade-long decline.
Newsom is looking everywhere for solutions, including changes that could allow thousands of inmates to earn a quicker release, positioning California to close a prison for the first time since 2003.
“It’s my intention to shut down a state prison to continue to invest more and more in education,” Newsom said during a news conference on May 14. “It’s a core value.”
Newsom is getting pushback for his idea, with some citing a possible spike in crime if transitioning programs are also slashed.
“It’s a completely terrible idea to reduce all services available to inmates coming out of prison and then accelerate the release of inmates,” Scott Kernan, a former corrections secretary under Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown, said in the Chronicle report.
The news outlet also noted a federal court order from 2009 required the state to reduce the number of inmates to 137.5 percent of capacity. The Chronicle reported:
Before it can close any prisons, however, California will need to release many more inmates. In his budget proposal, Newsom said he wants to phase out three contracts with outside facilities that house about 1,600 state inmates over the next two years. Shutting down two prisons on top of that would eliminate 5,000 to 6,000 more spots from the overflowing system.
Coronavirus also had led to the state to release some inmates early and stop accepting new ones, which reduced the prison population to just over 108,000 — a drop of almost 6,000, bringing the system to 127 percent of capacity.
The report said that some policies already in place also will help reduce the prison population, including rehabilitation and good-conduct credits that reduce sentences. This could mean that the prison population would be reduced by 11,000 by 2024 and could allow for two more prisons to be closed.
At least one Democrat, however, isn’t behind Newsom’s plan. Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former sheriff’s captain, said criminal justice reform in the state has already cleared out the lowest-level offenders.
Cooper is behind a November ballot initiative that would reclassify 15 offenses as violent, including human trafficking of a child, rape of an unconscious person and assaulting a police officer so that individuals convicted of those crimes could not earn parole faster under a 2016 law.
“Who’s left in those jails and prisons?” Cooper asked. “It’s those bad people.”
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