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State prisons to close

Newsom administration can close Northern California prison, judge rules in dismissing lawsuit

A judge cleared the way Wednesday in Lassen County Superior Court for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration to close a rural Northern California prison, dismissing a city’s lawsuit that challenged the plan. Newsom has been trying to close California Correctional Center, with about 1,600 inmates and 1,000 jobs, since 2021. It would be the second institution to close during his administration, following Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in 2021. The City of Susanville sued last year to try to stop the closure of California Correctional Center, saying the plan ran afoul of the California Environmental Quality Act and California Penal Code. Visiting Judge Robert Moody initially granted an injunction halting the state’s plan to close the site. In dismissing the case, scolded the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for using backroom maneuvering to close the prison through a recent change in state law that circumvented the court fight, ascribing an “unpleasant odor” to the strategy. But he said the change to the law was legal. The corrections department had been defending its closure plan in court while initiating an environmental review. In a California Environmental Quality Act filing earlier this year, the department said the closure would reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

But before the lawsuit or the environmental review were finished, the Legislature inserted language into budget legislation this June exempting California Correctional Center’s closure from environmental review and ordering it closed in June 2023. The corrections department moved to dismiss the lawsuit based on the new law. Susanville argued the corrections department had improperly influenced the Legislature and that the executive branch had undermined the judicial branch by dictating the outcome of a legal dispute. Moody reviewed relevant separation-of-power cases including an 1863 dispute between Congress and former President Abraham Lincoln over Lincoln’s power to pardon Confederate soldiers. Moody determined that legislatures in “virtually every case” had acted within their authority when they passed laws with retroactive effects in the face of pending litigation.

Still, he asked, “Has this process been fair to the City? … How fair is a process where one side has a legislature in the wings and the other doesn’t? When the CDCR claims that it has the same constitutional rights as any other citizen to petition the legislature, what credence should be given to that claim if it effectively has the keys to the back doors and the back rooms of the Capitol and nobody else does? How fair are even lawful statutes that are submitted and passed in 3 days?” Susanville’s city administrator did not immediately respond to a voicemail requesting an interview Thursday. Corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email Thursday that the department has “received the ruling and will be communicating next steps soon.

Newsom suggested in this year’s budget blueprint that his administration could close three more prisons, for a total of five, but the prisons have not been identified. This year’s budget language exempted not only the Susanville prison but all state prisons and juvenile facilities from environmental review. The coronavirus accelerated reductions to the state prison population, bringing the figure below 100,000. Criminal justice organizations have called on Newsom to speed up closures, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office has suggested California could save $1.5 billion per year by closing five prisons by 2025. California spends about $18 billion per year on corrections, or more than $104,000 per inmate, on its correctional system, which includes 34 prisons.

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