David Chiu: Closing 5 California prisons would free up money to house former inmates

By Hannah Wiley

By Hannah Wiley

The Sacramento Bee

A California Democrat wants to keep former inmates off the streets by using money saved from closing several California prisons in the next four years to fund re-entry housing.

California’s prison population currently hovers around 94,000, a number the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts will hold steady for the next several years due to recent efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

The numbers, down by tens of thousands of inmates from just a year ago, should allow California to close at least five prisons by 2025, the analyst’s office wrote in a November report. That could help the state save up to $1.5 billion.

Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, unveiled legislation Wednesday that would require allocating a portion of the savings to house formerly incarcerated Californians who might otherwise slip into homelessness upon release.

“We know that when people exit our prisons, they need a stable home,” Chiu said. “Folks can’t get up on their feet when they leave the criminal justice system without stable housing. They can’t access employment without stable housing. This is acknowledging the reality in our streets.”

Assembly Bill 328 follows a decade’s worth of legislative and voter-approved changes to how California sentences and releases inmates, beginning in 2011 with the so-called “realignment” plan to redirect the flow of low-level offenders from prisons into county jails.

Voters then approved in Proposition 47 in 2014 to change certain theft and drug felonies to misdemeanors, and Proposition 57 two years later to enhance inmate rehabilitation and parole opportunities.

Gov. Gavin Newsom then accelerated the release of thousands of inmates in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which rendered crowded housing conditions like prisons superspreader facilities.

The population dipped to 97,700 in October 2020, a 21% decrease from 123,100 in February, according to the analyst’s office.

Newsom also announced last year his plans to close two of the state’s 35 prisons, starting with Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy this year. The closings are expected to free up hundreds of millions of dollars per year in savings that would otherwise finance California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operations.

Sharon Rapport, director of California policy at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, said AB 328 would reduce recidivism and a cycle of homelessness in the formerly incarcerated population.

A 2018 Prison Policy Initiative study found that former inmates faced homelessness at nearly 10 times the rate as those who hadn’t served time. The rate increases if they’ve been behind bars more than once.

“AB 328 will address the needs of a population often ignored,” Rapport said in a statement. “It will also increase participants’ chances of landing employment, accessing health stability and thriving in their communities.”

The funding formula will be determined through the legislative process, Chiu said. But the money would help counties and homeless initiatives finance both short- and long-term housing and support services for recently released individuals, depending on their needs.

“Shepherding people from a cell block to a sidewalk has failed to recognize both a key driver of our homeless epidemic and our moral duty as a state,” Chiu said. “And I think we can do better.”

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