Closing a State Prison ‘Reckless’ Idea, Head of California Police Chiefs Group Says

January 3, 2020 Updated: January 7, 2020

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s dream of closing a state prison could quickly turn into a nightmare, one of the state’s top police chiefs said.

“The notion of closing a prison at this point in the history of our criminal justice system in California, frankly, is a reckless idea,” said Ron Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. Closing a prison could lead to more prison overcrowding and homelessness, he said, and put greater strain on county jails and police.

Newsom has long decried what he calls over-incarceration, and has emphasized alternatives to imprisonment with a focus on rehabilitation. But, Lawrence contends that closing state facilities will only lead to criminals being released and not rehabilitated.

“I arrest somebody here in my city, maybe for battery or maybe it’s for vandalism, or maybe it’s for burglary,” said Lawrence, who serves as police chief in Sacramento County’s Citrus Heights. “I take them to [the county] jail, but because the jail is full … the jail turns around and bounces them out.”

There’s even a disincentive for city police to book criminals because every time one of his officers does, Lawrence has to pay the county sheriff’s office a few hundred dollars—just to see them back out on the streets all too soon.

“If I know that they are going to turn around and release somebody, and I’m going to get charged in my city budget, I might as well release them myself,” he said.

This situation is the result of prison reforms that have already happened over the last several years in the state, Lawrence said. The reforms have offloaded the burden of overcrowding down to the county level. And he fears Newsom’s plans—revealed in a video interview by the Fresno Bee editorial board on criminal justice reform—would aggravate the problem.

A sheriff's deputy checks the handcuffs on inmates at the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, May 19, 2004. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
A sheriff’s deputy checks the handcuffs on inmates at the Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, May 19, 2004. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Newsom said that he would like to close one of California’s 34 state prisons, although he didn’t specify which one. He had already decided in October 2019 to phase out all privately-owned state prisons. Those hold a smaller population of prisoners than larger state-owned prisons. Private prisons accounted for about 1,200 of the state’s total 124,000 prisoners in December 2019. By contrast the state prison San Quentin holds 4,200 inmates.

“I would like to see, in my lifetime and hopefully my tenure, that we shut down a state prison,” Newsom said. “But you can’t do that flippantly. And, you can’t do that without the support of the unions, support of these communities, the staff, and that requires an alternative that can meet everyone’s needs and desires.”

Newsom said the 10 to 20 hours a week his office spends on deciding whether or not to release inmates on parole, has been a source of inspiration for prison reform.

“There have been moments knowing that the decision we made of freedom was also a sentence of death,” said Newsom. Many prisoners put on parole have no resources to thrive or even survive after their release, he said. He blamed this on the failure of the prison system, which he said lacks effective rehabilitation.

One alternative to incarceration has been the state’s 43 Fire Camps. These are minimum-security facilities where male inmates receive emergency response training and work to fight fires and protect against floods during emergencies. They also perform other community services. About 3,000 inmates are currently at these camps.

A History of Overcrowding

In 2009, when the state’s inmate population had reached 180 percent of the prison system’s design capacity, many inmates were not receiving routine medical and mental health care.

Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison interact in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Ione, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2007. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison interact in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Ione, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2007. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A federal court ordered the state to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of capacity, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011. That year, state lawmakers passed the Public Safety Realignment initiative, which saw the move of many state inmates to county jails.

Instead of building a new state prison to reduce overcrowding, realignment meant moving “bad actors and hardcore criminals” from state prisons to county jails, Lawrence said.

“Ask any county sheriff in the state, and they will tell you that the violence rate and criminal sophistication in their county jails have exponentially increased,” he said.

County jails were designed to hold inmates for up to one year—not more, Lawrence said. “But now … you’ve got prisoners in county jail systems for years on end. So, it’s a totally different climate.”

He questions why the state stopped at 137.5 percent capacity in its mandate. “The 137.5 percent of capacity, I’ve never understood,” Lawrence said. “Why isn’t it 100 percent?”

The state has achieved 134.7 percent, exceeding the mandate but falling far short of the capacity the prisons were designed to handle.

Budget and Targets

Newsom said in his conversation with the Fresno Bee that he is proposing $75 million in his 2020–21 budget to support reforms in county jails. That may alleviate some of the additional strain if a state prison is closed.

While he didn’t mention cost savings as the rationale behind shutting one down, funding has been the focal point of many similar discussions in years past. The cost of housing a single inmate in state prison averages about $81,000 a year in California.

Twenty years ago, legislators grappled with the notion of selling high-security San Quentin State Prison to real estate developers for an estimated $2 billion, given its waterfront view on San Francisco Bay. But a more likely target for Newsom is the medium-security California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco, said Matt Cate, a former CDCR secretary who is now a consultant, in an interview with the Sacramento Bee.

The CRC, deemed to be in a state of disrepair and slated for closure in 2012, currently holds about 3,300 inmates. But, according to Reuters, it remained open to ease crowding in the state prison system.

The Fresno Bee/Eric Zamora