The 2020 presidential election primaries are swiftly approaching, and policy platforms are steadily being rolled out. Already, we’ve seen candidates declare their intent to reform the United States’ criminal legal system; some of these proposals include bold plans to ban private, for-profit prisons.
While it’s encouraging to see these compelling policy proposals from Democratic candidates at the national level, these ideas and platforms remind us that the onus is still on progressive states like California to lead the way.
Right now, Assembly Bill 32, by California Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), which would put a hard stop to California’s relationship with private prisons, is on the Governor’s desk, waiting for a signature. AB 32 would make it unlawful to operate private prisons in California, and would phase out existing private state prison contracts by 2028.
What truly sets AB 32 apart is its intersectional approach; the bill tackles two of the greatest drivers of mass incarceration head-on, criminal incarceration and immigration detention. Almost 184,000 people are currently being held in California’s criminal system and another 5,000 in immigration detention, with many of these Californians in private facilities.
While private prisons are far from the sole driver of mass incarceration, they play a unique role and it is critical to dismantle private prisons in the greater fight against mass incarceration. The private, for-profit prison industry has deep roots in the United States, which spread deeper into the fabric of our nation in the 1980s when the War on Drugs fueled a rapid expansion in the prison population.
Similarly, the last decade has seen private prisons rush to answer a new catastrophe: the rise of immigration detention. Currently, more than 60% of immigration detention nationally exists in private prisons—with an even higher figure in California—over 90%.
As a state and a nation, we need to begin investing in solutions that heal communities and keep families together. Shifting from incarceration to rehabilitation is more than a moral imperative, it actually works. There are effective alternatives to incarceration that are far less costly and which reduce recidivism. Providing people with basic needs including housing, mental health treatment, childcare, living wages and community-based supportive systems is an effective and cost effective approach to public safety.
Alternatives to immigrant detention are far less expensive, costing as little to 70 cents to $17 per day—compared to $208 per day for detention. Data also shows that when these methods are deployed, more than 90% of people still show up to their immigration court hearings, and, more importantly, families remain together.
To uproot and abolish this entrenched system, we need more than campaign promises; we need states like California to set a new standard for the rest of the country by passing comprehensive and intersectional legislation. AB 32 shows pioneering strategies and solutions to achieve true, lasting social change can come from the state level. We look to Governor Newsom for his leadership in signing this bipartisan bill, and to other state governments to build upon the California legislature’s progress to end this cruel and unjust system of detention and incarceration.
Grisel Ruiz is supervising attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) and Amber-Rose Howard is statewide coordinator at Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB).