Newsom Resists Calls to Close More Prisons Ahead of California Budget Shortfall

By: Alex Trent | Published: Apr 01, 2024

As California budget negotiations heat up, analysts say the state could save more than $1 billion per year if it closed at least five prisons. However, Governor Gavin Newsom appears resistant to this idea to help resolve the state’s historic upcoming budget gap, despite his track record of closing prisons in the past.

Democrats and criminal justice advocates have called for more prison closings in the state, but the governor also has to contend with the opinions of many Californians who are increasingly concerned about crime.

No Plans for Prison Closure

H.D. Palmer, a representative from the California Department of Finance, told the Los Angeles Times that the Newsom administration has no plans to close more prisons. 

A sunset behind crossed iron bars. There is an old padlock hanging on the bars.

Saad Chaudhry/Unplash

Palmer is confident that prison numbers won’t rise dramatically in the near future, but thinks closing prisons could contribute to overcrowding. “One thing we don’t want to go back to is where we had triple bunking in cells,” Palmer said.


Democrats Want Prisons Closed

California Democrat lawmakers like Senator Seven Bradford and Assemblymember Mia Bonta are insistent that prison reform and closing prisons in favor of alternative approaches are a top priority.

An empty prison floor with a cell door open.

Source: Emiliano Bar/Unsplash

In an email to the Los Angeles Times Bradford, said “Investing in rehabilitation will pay dividends by reducing the revolving door of recidivism and will allow formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully re-integrate when they return home to their communities and families.”

Closing Prisons for the Budget

Bonta formerly served on the Assembly’s budget subcommittee on public safety, where she advocated for prison closings. “We have an insurmountable budget deficit,” Bonta said, mentioning how the legislature is being forced to look for cuts to respond to the budget shortfall.

A view of a prison hallway with stairs in the middle and doors on the sides of the hall.

Source: Tom Blackout/Unsplash

The Legislative Analysts Office (LAO) estimated in February that the 2024-2025 California government budget would have a deficit of $73 billion. The LAO also estimated that new prison closures could save California $1 billion annually.

Newsom’s Track Record of Closing Prisons

When Gavin Newsom took office, he did so on the promise that he would close at least one California prison during his first year as Governor. He succeeded with this promise, approving a total of three California prison closures.

Gavin Newsom speaking passionately into a microphone against a dark background with a spotlight overhead

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford University described Newsom’s motivations. “The governor has a long track record of being on the progressive side of criminal justice. His belief that we can reduce prison populations and improve public safety is achievable. That’s the core of his goal.”

It’s Become Complicated

However, Romano also made the case that just closing prisons as a means to push progressive ideas of criminal justice isn’t an easy solution to California’s problems.

Someone looks at the hallway of a prison from inside a cell.

Source: Matthew Ansley/Unsplash

“But the question of closing more prisons is complicated and goes beyond public safety. I don’t think they go as hand-in-hand as people want them to,” Romano said.


Opposition to Closing Prisons

Republicans like Senator Roger Niello disagree with the idea of closing prisons for the budget. Niello brings up that crime rates may be on the rise in the future, and that could potentially increase the potential prison population. 

A young man has his hands placed in handcuffs. Cell bars can be seen in the background

Source: rattanakun/Canva

A ballot measure in the state could reform Proposition 47, which would increase the amount of time Californians spend in jail for property and drug crimes.


Californians Worried About Crime

A statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) published in February found that crime was a top issue among Californians. The survey asked respondents to name the most important issue that they wanted the government to work on in 2024.

The glowing red and blue lights of a police car's light bar are captured in sharp focus against a dark night background

Source: Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash

In the responses, 20% named the economy, 18% named homelessness, and 14% mentioned crime, gangs, and drugs.


Going the Wrong Direction

The survey found that the majority of Californians are continuing to think that the state is headed in the wrong direction. Less than half of Californian adults approve of the job Newsom has done as governor.

A California pier seen in the daytime by palm trees.

Source: Mark Neal/Unsplash

Six in 10 independents disapprove of Newsom while eight in 10 Republicans also disapprove. Newsom’s approval rating among Democrats is 70%.


Prison Allocation

A report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CCR) found that the governor’s budget proposal for 2024-2025 contained $14.5 billion to fund state prison facilities. 

A man with his hands behind his back.

Source: Kindle Media/Pexels

The report analyzed the budget and found that there should be room for budget negotiators to shut down prison facilities because expenses have declined. Facilities are saving on healthcare because of a drop in COVID-19 cases in prison populations.


Populations Falling

This same report also found that prison populations in California have shrunk by 34,000 people over the last five years. Today there are 94,000 people incarcerated in facilities under the CCR’s watch, which they predict will further reduce to 85,000 in 2027.

Barged wire seen on the walls of a prison.

Source: Quinn Dombrowski/Wikimedia

There are currently 15,000 empty beds in the prison system, which is predicted to increase to 19,000 by 2028.


Balancing Act

Newsom was sworn in with an ambitious progressive agenda for the state of California but now is finding it necessary to balance the concerns of his Democrat base and other constituents as approval for the governor is split. 

Gavin Newsom speaks at Lake Tahoe.

Source: The United States Senate/Wikimedia

Newsom is in a tough spot because no matter which action he takes, it is bound to infuriate one side or the other. Progressives want to end “tough on crime” policies while conservatives want a stop to criminal justice reforms that they feel are contributing to a rise in crime.