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Year in Review: California Closes Prisons and Transforms Others
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By CalMatters
Published 4 months ago on
December 23, 2023

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In Summary
As the state shutters prisons, Gov. Newsom wants to turn San Quentin into a model for rehabilitation. Attorney General Rob Bonta is trying to catch up on police shooting investigations.

Nigel Duara

Special to CalMatters

Opinion

The long, loud fights over prison closures in 2022 spilled into 2023 as communities dependent on prison dollars continued to argue for their own survival. Despite protests, lobbying and lawsuits by the affected cities, California still plans to close another five prisons by 2027 as inmate populations keep falling.

Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged to transform San Quentin State Prison into a “center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation and breaking cycles of crime” in an effort to reduce recidivism, but details remain scant on what that looks like.

Attorney General Rob Bonta’s unit that investigates police shootings of unarmed people had ruled on just four of its 44 cases by November 2023 as the families of people who were killed started to give up hope that the Justice Department would ever get them a resolution. The Justice Department conceded that it had not even logged every call from a police agency reporting the shooting of an unarmed person.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis organized the flights of two groups of migrants into California, prompting Newsom to refer to him as a “small, pathetic man” and insinuated that the state of California could pursue kidnapping charges. The tête-à-tête is expected to continue with a debate on Nov. 30.

Later in the summer, debate over a fairly minor bill log-jammed in an Assembly committee exploded into a three-day maelstrom in which a legislator reported getting death threats. The bill would have reclassified human trafficking of a minor for purposes of a commercial sex act as a “serious felony,” something that was proposed and rejected nine times before 2023. Newsom later signed the bill into law.

After consecutive years of record deaths in the San Diego jail system, a powerful legislator proposed putting “detention monitors” in each facility in the state. That plan was watered down significantly after opposition from law enforcement groups. The final version of the bill instead created a new position on the Board of State and Community Corrections that reviews in-custody deaths.

In 2024, criminal justice reform advocates have pledged to bring back bills vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom as the governor himself has moderated his enthusiasm for far-reaching changes to California’s criminal justice system. Prisons in Blythe and California City will wind down operations as Newsom looks to shutter even more correctional facilities and yards. Lobbyists for law enforcement will keep a close eye on the waning post-George Floyd legislative enthusiasm for major changes to policing after a year in which they quietly watered down or killed two bills that would have affected prison transfers to immigration facilities and a major overhaul of how counties oversee their sheriffs.

About the Author

Nigel Duara joined CalMatters in 2020 as a Los Angeles-based reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. Previously, he served as a national and climate correspondent on the HBO show VICE News Tonight. Before that, he was the border correspondent at the Los Angeles Times based in Phoenix, deployed to stories across the country. He is a longtime contributor to Portland Monthly magazine and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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