What Happens Now That California Is Depopulating Prisons?

Every year, more than 600,000 people go to prison in the United States. While 95 percent of these people will eventually get out, there is a 75% chance of returning to prison within five years. Thus, the corrections system has largely been a revolving door for most persons convicted of a criminal offense.

California recently decided that 76,000 of its 115,000 inmates who are eligible under its Good Conduct Credit (GCC) program will be going home early – this was along with plans to close several state prisons.

The inmates will be eligible for early release in the coming months, but officials in the criminal justice system have fiercely opposed the idea. 44 California’s district attorney filed a lawsuit against the state. Likewise, cities have indicated their plans to sue the state for closing prisons. Many of these prisons are the economic lifelines of suburban communities where they support local entrepreneurs and create jobs.

These decisions by Governor Gavin Newsom were controversial, especially since he is the cynosure of a recall election.

And while we await the outcome of these lawsuits, there are a couple of questions. How does the state plan to keep people out of prison, now that it is depopulating these prisons? And how will California support the communities affected by the shutdown of correctional facilities?

Answers to these questions are important if the state wishes to uphold the tenets of the Safety & Rehabilitation Act of 2016.

First, the question of how the state plans to keep people out of prison – after all, 65% of California inmates return to prison within three years. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has used a community-based approach to reentry services. It partners with local law enforcement to facilitate community supervision and rehabilitation of parolees at residential, outpatient, drop-in centers.

But have the reentry services been very effective? Experts think not. California has expanded its reentry services over the years, but housing and gainful employment remain out of reach for former inmates. These inmates learn to fight fires and are often on the frontlines, battling dangerous fires along with professional firefighters. However, a California licensing law still bans many ex-offenders from working as full-time firefighters once they get out – despite their on-the-job experience.

In September 2020, Governor Newsom signed AB 2147 to facilitate the expungement of criminal records that prevent inmates from gaining occupational licenses and professional certifications. Despite this bill, things are not looking up for former inmate firefighters.

Without support to access gainful employment and housing, the ineffectiveness of the CDCR’s reentry program will be apparent as 76,000 inmates leave prison over the coming months.

California projects it will spend $17 billion on corrections in 2021. Closing the earmarked prisons will save the state nearly $1.5 billion over the next five years. Many of these communities, e.g., Susanville, rely on prisons to keep their economy running. Now that the government has closed the correctional facilities, the question remains: how the state plans to support the communities affected?

Without a plan to reinvest or support these inmates and communities, experts postulate California risks unintended consequences that may increase the rate of recidivism, local crimes, and the collapse of local economies that rely on prisons.