Recent Outbreaks at San Quentin and Other Prisons Underscore Urgency to Prevent Virus Spread from Prisons and Keep Communities Safe as Report Identifies Tens of Thousands of People Who Could be Considered for Safe Release


July 1, 2020

Will Matthews, Californians for Safety and Justice,
(909) 261-1398; [email protected]

OAKLAND, Calif. – As the California Senate Public Safety Committee holds a hearing on COVID-19 in the state’s prisons, Californians for Safety and Justice released a new report Wednesday with voter-supported options to safely reduce the state prison population. The report identifies tens of thousands of people who could be considered for safe release to reduce crowding in prisons during a health crisis that threatens to spread COVID-19. The incarceration reduction options would also decrease wasteful prison spending in the face of a record budget deficit. It also highlights how these options are supported by wide majorities of likely voters in the state, based on a recent poll by nationally-respected public opinion research firm, David Binder Research.

The report, “How California Can Cut Prison Spending, Protect Health and Education Spending and Improve Public safety,” comes as prisons and communities across the state are experiencing new Coronavirus outbreaks, and underscores the urgency with which the state must continue to reduce prison crowding. 

“At a time when California faces an unprecedented public health crisis, massive budget deficits and popular calls to create a more racially equitable justice system, it is crucial that state policymakers take bold steps to continue to reduce the number of people inside of California’s overcrowded prisons,” said Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. “By reducing overincarceration and the prison budget, we can protect communities from COVID and provide funding for local public safety programs that better meet the health and safety needs of our communities.” 

According to the report, there are five main policy options for further reducing the prison population safely in order to cut back wasteful spending on failed prisons and address the ongoing threat the spread of COVI-19 in prisons poses to the entire state:

1.     Reduce incarceration of people who are low risk to public safety: According to a risk assessment used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 49 percent of institutional population (63,000 people) were assessed to be low risk to reoffend for a violent crime.

2.     Resentence individuals in prison who are elderly and/or medically frail: 19,000 people in prison (about 15 percent of the prison population) are aged 55 and over. Research shows that the likelihood of people in this age group committing a new crime can be as low as 2 percent. 

3.     Revise the Three Strikes law to reduce extreme sentencing: There are 33,000 people sentenced to prison under the Three Strikes Law, 18,000 of whom were sentenced for a nonviolent offense. 

4.     Require wider use of alternatives to incarceration and strengthen local public safety systems: The latest data shows that 37,000 people sentenced to prison have a mental health challenge. 

5.     Create a task force required to consider multiple options for reducing prison spending

Despite a number of reforms enacted over the past decade in California that have significantly reduced the state’s prison population, there are still more people in California’s prisons than they were designed to safely hold and spending on prisons has continued to increase. Prison spending is expected to hit an all time high of $13 billion this year. 

The statewide polling, completed in May 2020, shows there is wide support among California voters for continuing to reduce incarceration and prioritizing investments in schools, public health and other key services for communities. According to the polling, voters support releasing people deemed a low risk to public safety by a two-to-one margin, nearly eight in 10 voters support the release of people in prison who are elderly or medically frail, voters support further revisions to the Three Strikes law by a three-to-one margin, and more than seven in 10 voters support the increased use of alternatives to incarceration, especially if the savings from reduced incarceration were to be reallocated to schools, hospitals and other vital programs.   

“It’s clear voters believe a thoughtful reallocation of public safety dollars to better prioritize prevention and healing should be a cornerstone of building safe communities and stopping the cycles of crime,” said Jordan. “By continuing to reduce the state’s prison population we not only will be responding to the urgent crisis of COVID-19 but we will also begin to sustain the resources needed to build a strong and inclusive safety framework for all Californians.”