Will California Abolish Private Prisons?

August 13, 2019 Updated: August 13, 2019

A bill aimed at eliminating state contracts with private, for-profit detention facilities in California was placed on suspense file in the State Senate’s Appropriations Committee on Aug. 12, raising questions about whether the legislation will advance.

The bill, AB-32, authored by a number of Democratic Assembly Members and Democratic State Senator Scott Wiener, has already passed the State Assembly 61 to 13, with all but three Democrats voting in favor of the bill. Meanwhile, 16 of 19 Republicans either voted against or did not vote, while three voted in favor. The bill has also passed the Senate Judiciary and Senate Public Safety committees.

The bill, on or after January 1, 2020, would prohibit the state from entering into or renewing a contract with a private, for-profit prison to incarcerate prison inmates. The bill would also prohibit, after January 1, 2028, a state prison inmate or other person under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from being incarcerated in a private, for-profit prison facility, according to the text of AB-32.

An amendment to the bill makes exceptions for the use of private facilities for services such as providing mental health treatment or education.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California has more than 117,000 inmates in public prisons, as of January. This is just over 130 percent of the state’s prison capacity, reported The Mercury News.

A prior court order mandates that California must not house prisoners at above 137.5 percent of its capacity. If private prisons were to close, the thousands of prisoners held in those private prisons would be transferred to state prisons, and the state could risk possibly violating the court order.

Former Governor Jerry Brown vetoed similar legislation in 2017 that would have eliminated contracts with out-of-state facilities, arguing at the time that the corrections department needed to “maintain maximum flexibility in the short term” due to the court order, according to The Mercury News.

Current Governor Gavin Newsom has taken a different approach, arguing the need to remove private prisons entirely, arguing in his inaugural address this year to “end the outrage that is private prisons.”

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), one of AB-32’s authors, has also argued that it’s immoral to profit on the imprisonment of criminals. “For-profit, private prisons are not the solution. These companies have a duty to their shareholders, not to California,” said Bonta in a statement.

Others however, argue that private prisons have made a difference in reducing the overcrowding in state run facilities.

“Not everyone wants to hear this, but [private prisons] did a really good job of providing us with the capacity we needed. … [The facilities are] a necessary and integral part of how we managed our population,” former state corrections department chief Scott Kernan told The Mercury News. Kernan now serves on the board of directors for GEO Group, one of the two companies holding California inmates.

GEO Group and CoreCivic, another other private prison company, have been supportive of President Trump and his initiatives. Both companies were donors to Trump’s inauguration committee, while GEO Group gave to the President’s 2016 campaign as well as a pro-Trump Super PAC, leading to questions as to whether AB-32 was designed to cut off profits from two companies that financially supported the President leading up to the 2020 elections.

The bill must be removed from the suspense file in the State Senate Appropriations Committee before it can move to the Senate floor for a full vote. Bills are typically moved to the suspense file if they’re expected to have a significant fiscal effect or they will need further study before being implemented.