In this post, we analyze the Governor’s May Revision proposals for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to undertake capital outlay projects at San Quentin State Prison (SQ) as a part of a broader effort to develop a more rehabilitative and health-focused model for California prisons, known as the “California Model.” Specifically, we describe the Governor’s proposals, discuss several concerns with the proposals, and provide recommendations to the Legislature.
On March 17, 2023, Governor Newsom announced his intention to establish an advisory council to recommend changes to SQ in order to help develop the California Model, which is broadly focused on promoting a more rehabilitative and health-focused environment in California prisons. According to the administration, the goals of the California Model include:
Improving the health and well-being of people who live and work in California prisons, with a focus on reducing trauma and toxic stress.
Reducing incidents of use of force, staff assaults, overdoses, self-harm, homicides, suicides, grievances, self-isolation, and admissions to mental health crisis beds.
The Governor announced the membership of the advisory council on May 5, 2023, which can be found here. The May Revision includes multiple proposals, which—according to the Governor—are intended to help develop the California Model at SQ in a way that can be scaled across CDCR and is effective at increasing public safety. We summarize the proposals below.
Funding for Capital Outlay Projects at S Q. The Governor proposes funding in 2023-24 for capital outlay projects at SQ. The scope of the projects would be determined by the advisory council. The Governor proposes to complete the various projects by the end of 2025.
Educational and Vocational Center ($360.6 Million in Lease Revenue Bond Authority). The funds would be used to demolish an existing building and construct a new educational and vocational center. The administration indicates that the existing building was formerly used as a furniture factory and that a small portion of the building is currently being used for two other rehabilitation programs.
Various Undetermined Capital Outlay Projects ($20 Million General Fund). The Governor’s January budget proposal included $20 million as a placeholder in CDCR’s operational budget. The May Revision proposes to transfer these funds to CDCR’s capital outlay budget. According to the administration, the funds would support projects that could include demolition, site preparations, and building renovations.
Statutory Changes to Facilitate Project Completion by 2025. In order to help ensure that the above projects are completed as planned, the Governor proposes trailer bill language to:
Exempt Projects From Certain Requirements. The proposed trailer bill language would exempt the proposed projects from historic preservation requirements and the California Environmental Quality Act.
Allow CDCR to Use Progressive Design-Build. The proposed trailer bill language would allow CDCR to use the Progressive Design-Build project delivery method for the design and construction of the educational and vocational center. Under this delivery method, the state selects one contractor to provide both design and construction services through a qualifications-based procurement process, which can allow for a shorter overall project time line.
Modify Legislative Notification Requirement. Existing law requires CDCR to submit certain information on capital outlay projects—such as an estimate of annual operating costs—to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) at least 30 days prior to submitting project preliminary plans to the State Public Works Board (SPWB). The proposed trailer bill language would modify this requirement for projects funded with the proposed $20 million General Fund. Specifically, CDCR would only be required to notify JLBC 20 days prior to submission of preliminary plans to SPWB and not be required to submit information about the plans, such as estimated operational costs.
Statutory Changes to Rename SQ the “San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.” The Governor proposes to change the name of the prison as written in state law from “California State Prison at San Quentin” to the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.
While Goals of the California Model Are Laudable, No Clear Objectives or Plans Have Been Developed. We find that the overall goals of the California Model are laudable and merit consideration. However, the administration has not set clear and specific objectives for meeting these goals. Setting clear objectives—before initiating major changes—would help ensure that model development is focused on achieving the state’s highest-priority goals. In contrast, by taking significant steps to initiate changes before defining clear objectives for the model, the Governor’s proposal risks making changes that ultimately do not help develop the model or achieve its goals. For example, if the state decides to prioritize objectives related to reducing staff assaults and mental-health crisis bed admissions, then it could make sense to focus on prisons other than SQ that have greater challenges with these problems.
While the administration has articulated some broad approaches to pursuing the goals of the California Model, such as “becoming a trauma informed organization,” it has not identified any clear changes to policy, practice, or prison environments it deems necessary to achieve the goals. Without such information, it is difficult for the Legislature to determine whether the Governor’s proposals reflect the most effective approach for meeting the intended goals, including whether the model should first be implemented at SQ versus at another state prison.
Funding Proposals Lack Key Information. We find that the Governor’s capital outlay proposals lack key information—making it difficult for the Legislature to assess their merits. Specifically, the proposals do not include the following information:
Scope of Construction and Operational Implications. The scope and operational implications of the proposed projects are almost totally undetermined. This is because the details of the projects would be determined by the advisory council and CDCR after the 2023-24 budget is enacted. Without knowing their scope and operational implications, the Legislature risks approving funding for projects that it might ultimately disagree with. For example, while the administration proposes to construct an educational and vocational center, the administration could make operational decisions—such as about the types of training provided or eligibility criteria—that are not aligned with legislative priorities. This also makes it difficult for the Legislature to evaluate whether the proposed funding would further the goals of the California Model.
Operational Costs. Given that the operational implications of the proposed projects are not known, it is impossible for the Legislature to know what the cost of operating the facilities would be once constructed. This includes the costs to provide security staffing for the facilities as well as the costs of providing whatever educational or vocational training is selected. It is possible that the Legislature could find the full operational costs to be too high relative to whatever benefits the facilities generate. As such, it does not make sense to construct facilities before the Legislature can confirm it is comfortable with the cost of operating them.
Proposed Project Completion by 2025 Is Unnecessary and Problematic. There is no clear policy rationale behind the Governor’s plan to complete the proposed construction projects by 2025. Moreover, this deadline creates several challenges that could undermine the development of an effective model. For example, according to CDCR, the advisory council would need to provide recommendations by fall 2023 to inform the design of the educational and vocational center. This severely limits the council’s time to develop well-informed recommendations. In addition, CDCR indicates that even with the advisory council operating on a highly compressed time line, it would still need to begin some facility design activities before receiving the council’s recommendations. The deadline also undermines legislative oversight of the proposed projects in various ways. For example, the compressed time line requires CDCR to request funding for both the design and construction of the projects. This means the Legislature will be unable to reconsider whether to continue funding the projects once aspects of the design have been completed and there is greater clarity about the cost and scope of the projects, as is normally the case.
Facility Projects Would Be Extremely Costly to Scale. We estimate that the Governor’s proposed $360.6 million in lease revenue bond authority to build the educational and vocational center would require about $25 million General Fund in annual debt service payments for 25 years, beginning as early as 2025-26. Thus, the total cost of this project alone would be about $680 million. To complete projects of similar scope at the state’s 30 other prisons not currently scheduled for deactivation would cost over $800 million in additional annual debt service—a total cost of about $20 billion over 25 years. This would be a significant fiscal commitment that appears to run counter to legislative interest in curbing growth in prison spending.
Reject Proposed Capital Outlay Funding and Related Statutory Changes. In view of the above concerns, we recommend that the Legislature reject the Governor’s proposals to make facility modifications at SQ. Consequently, we also recommend rejecting the related statutory changes proposed by the Governor.
Require Report on Development of California Model. Given the administration’s planned efforts—and that of the advisory council—to develop the California Model, it will be important for the Legislature to obtain key information on these efforts to help determine whether the model merits future implementation. This is particularly important if the administration plans to submit future budget or policy proposals related to the model. As such, we recommend the Legislature direct the administration to submit a report by January 10, 2024 that would both require the administration to more fully develop the model and assist the Legislature in determining whether the model is aligned with its priorities. Specifically, this report should include the following information:
Objectives of the Model. The report should detail the objectives of the California Model and how achieving these objectives would further the model’s goals. Moreover, the report should outline whether, in developing these objectives, the administration prioritized achieving certain goals over others, and if so, how it weighed the relevant trade-offs.
Strategy for Model Development. The report should detail the administration’s strategy to develop a model that is effective in achieving the stated objectives. To the extent the strategy involves piloting changes at particular prisons, the report should explain why the chosen prisons are a strategic choice for developing an effective and scalable model and what alternative prisons were considered. The report should also describe how the strategy would result in the development of a model that is applicable on a systemwide level—meaning across all state prisons.
Stakeholder Involvement. The report should provide information on how CDCR is involving stakeholders in the model development process, including what stakeholders were consulted and how CDCR plans to continue keeping stakeholders informed on the development of the California model.
We note that in requiring the administration to prepare this report, the Legislature will want to consider whether to provide direction on any key elements it wants to ensure are reflected in the objectives or strategy. For example, the Legislature could direct the administration to include certain objectives in the model and/or consult with certain key stakeholders, such as currently incarcerated people, front-line staff, and loved ones of incarcerated people.
Use Report to Guide Next Steps. After reviewing the above report, the Legislature can decide to what extent it is interested in pursuing the administration’s objectives and strategy to develop the model. At that point, the Legislature could require additional reports, including information on estimated costs, time lines, and a plan for evaluating the model.