Mindful of Prop. 47 sentence reductions, Brown aims to scale back private prisons

Inmates at an exercise yard at Solano State Prison in Vacaville in 2005. Gov. Jerry Brown proposes reducing California's use of private prisons as the inmate population drops.

Inmates at an exercise yard at Solano State Prison in Vacaville in 2005. Gov. Jerry Brown proposes reducing California’s use of private prisons as the inmate population drops.

(Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to cut California’s reliance on out-of-state private prisons by half, but seeks to postpone long-term discussion about the state’s own aging lockups and need to rent space from others until next year.

The governor’s latest plans, contained in revised spending proposals released Thursday, call for shrinking the number of inmates housed outside California in the next year by 4,000 -- reducing related state spending by $73 million. As of this week, the state had a little more than 8,000 inmates in private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma, and another 6,250 prisoners in contracted lockups within the state.

The governor’s prison spending cuts are attributed to sooner-than-expected reductions in the overall state prison population because of passage of Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for drug- and theft-related crimes, and court-ordered releases.


The total prison population currently is 129,700, more than 5,000 inmates fewer than the year before. Brown’s administration now projects the inmate population will dip below 128,000 inmates in the next year.

However, the governor also notes the “extraordinary challenges and uncertainties” currently facing the state’s sprawling prison system. Despite urging earlier this week by Senate Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) to immediately close one of the state’s most costly prisons, the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco, Brown says he will not address the fate of that prison until the budget process that begins in January. He noted that California still must meet, and stay below, court-ordered limits on prison crowding.

Hancock said Norco prison is so deteriorated it is unsafe to keep it open.

“The conditions at Norco are too dire to drag it out through yet another year before we remove inmates and staff from that unhealthy situation,” she said in a written response Thursday.

Corrections department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the state has begun leaving spaces in out-of-state prisons unfilled as inmates finish their terms. Attrition alone won’t reach the governor’s current goals and the corrections department plans to send some prisoners back to California, Callison said.

The reductions are not enough for those who advocate for larger releases of prisoners. “We really think it is backsliding, when there is no realistic plan in continuing the reduction strategy,” said Diana Zuniga, of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.