Jerry Brown's California budget slashes $1 billion from prisons

The entrance to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California.
The entrance to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to cut state prison spending by a billion dollars in the next fiscal year — mostly by cutting staff. Prison officials say they won’t need as many employees because the number of prisoners they oversee is dropping fast — the state has 11,000 fewer inmates since California’s “realignment” law took effect in October. The law diverts low-level felons to county jails. The state this week met its first court-ordered benchmark for reducing the prison population.

California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations is changing and rearranging and shrinking, as realignment drives the prison population down.

"We see the churning of inmates has stopped, great reductions in our total number of inmates already," Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said.

The department’s already converting some reception centers, where inmates are processed and housed temporarily, to longer-term facilities, Cate said. They’re turning Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla into a men’s prison.

Now the governor has proposed to release more women into alternative custody — a program that lets them serve their terms at home. He also wants to close the last of the state’s Juvenile Justice facilities.

"This next budget year is really doing the hard fiscal work of making realignment real across the board in corrections and in the Counties," Cate said.

Part of the “hard fiscal work” Cate’s talking about is cutting 3,000 staff positions. Department Undersecretary Terry McDonald said many of those jobs are vacant, so existing staff may not be cut — although they could have to relocate.

"We have institutions in locations that have chronically suffered from staffing vacancies," McDonald said, "a good example being Pelican Bay or our Susanville facilities. So employees who are in facilities where the population’s reducing have been given the opportunity to move where we already have vacancies."

But JeVaughn Baker with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association said a lot of vacancies represent jobs that really should be filled to keep prisons safe.

"As officers are shifting from one institution to another," Baker said, "we’re still concerned about the staffing ratios; we believe that we’re understaffed already at a lot of these institutions."

California’s prison population has been dropping by 1,000 inmates a week as low-level felons parole out of the system and new felony convictions get diverted to counties.

Prison officials estimate that by the time California’s public safety realignment is fully implemented in a couple of years, California’s prison will hold 34,000 fewer inmates. Corrections spending will fall by 18 percent.

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