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key takeaway

Closing California state prisons is a key underutilized tool that can provide the funds needed to offset cuts to vital safety net and health programs.

The governor’s 2024-25 May Revision includes deep cuts to critical programs and services that support California’s most vulnerable populations. The solutions the administration proposes for closing the May Revision’s projected $27.6 billion shortfall fail to utilize the full set of tools in the state’s toolbelt.

As a result, the governor proposes to dramatically cut safety net and health programs such as the CalWORKs family stabilization program, the Family Urgent Response System, the Indian Health Grant Program, in-home supportive services for undocumented Californians, among others. For CalWORKs alone, cuts amount to nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars — most of which are ongoing and completely eliminate essential programs designed to support families navigating domestic violence, mental health challenges, substance abuse, and other crises.

The proposed cuts, which disproportionately target foster youth, Californians with disabilities, immigrant communities, students, and families with young children, may further push many Californians into poverty, ultimately impacting their lifetime earnings, health outcomes, and more.  

Closing California state prisons is a key underutilized tool that can provide the funds needed to offset these cuts. Specifically, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) estimates that California can safely close up to five prisons, given the enormous number of empty beds in the system (nearly 15,000). Closing five prisons equates to $1 billion in ongoing annual savings. This ongoing $1 billion may fund up to 13 safety net and health programs that the May Revision proposes to cut indefinitely.

While these prison closures would be rolled out across several years (up to 2028, as estimated by the LAO), creating a prison closure plan now would be a first step in imagining alternative solutions to the current cuts to critical programs. For example, state leaders could use the state’s rainy day fund to temporarily support these programs as the annual savings from closing five prisons grows to $1 billion over the next few years.

If the California budget truly reflects the state’s values and priorities, programs that support the health and well-being of Californians should be prioritized over empty prison beds. 

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