Newsom on tour: Next stop, San Quentin

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La March 17, 2023
Presented by American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and New California Coalition

Newsom on tour: Next stop, San Quentin

In March 2019, as one of his first major decisions in office, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions. He later dismantled the lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison — a move that garnered plenty of criticism despite the fact that California has not executed anyone since 2006. 

Today — on Day 2 of his state policy tour — he’ll be at the prison to announce its complete transformation from an infamous, maximum security prison into a rehabilitation and training center. The governor said California will spend $20 million to begin the project.

As CalMatters criminal justice reporter Nigel Duara explains, it’s a move that’s either “revolutionary” if you’re a prison reform moderate, or just “window dressing” if you’re a prison abolitionist.

  • Sharon Dolovich, director of the UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program: “This is certainly new and it’s bold and it’s ambitious, and I am delighted to see it as a step in the right direction.”

The idea to make the institution focused on “education, rehabilitation and breaking cycles of crime,” is based on a Scandinavian model of the prison system. After allowing prisoners more freedom and focusing on rehabilitation efforts, Norway saw its recidivism rate drop from 60% to 70% in the 1980s to about 20% today.

Through pilot programs, the model has already been adopted by some California prisons, along with facilities in Oregon, North Dakota and Pennsylvania — where it’s known as the “Little Scandinavia” unit in one facility, reports The Los Angeles Times.

But to adopt the approach at the scale of San Quentin Prison, which houses 3,300 incarcerated people, signifies that Newsom is endeavoring to take bigger swings to change California’s criminal justice system. Along with plans to shut down more prisons altogether, the redevelopment of San Quentin is yet another example of the governor reworking 1990s-era crime policies that gave rise to overwhelming prison populations.

From CalMatters housing reporter Ben Christopher:

On Day 1 of Newsom’s tour, the topic was homelessness: He stopped at Cal Expo in Sacramento on Thursday to announce that local governments across California are committing to bring more than 17,000 people off the street and into housing before 2025.

The announcement represents a rapprochement between locals and the governor. Newsom has blamed city and county governments for failing to make sufficient progress despite a recent surge in state spending on homelessness. Last year, Newsom briefly withheld $1 billion in funding after the re-housing plans that local governments submitted for a state grant added up to a mere 2% reduction.

The more ambitious pledge of 15% — though the plans to make the goal are yet to be published — is part of a new round of applications for another $1 billion. According to the governor’s office, the state has directed $15.3 billion towards tackling homelessness since 2019.

The governor also announced that the state will be buying 1,200 furnished “tiny homes” and using the state National Guard to deliver them to Los Angeles, San Diego County, San Jose and Sacramento to serve as short-term housing by the fall.

  • San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan: “The governor has challenged us to be more accountable, to move the needle faster, more cost-effectively.”

At last count, nearly 174,000 Californians don’t have a home. Most of those people are unsheltered. 

While Newsom’s plans and promises were on the modest side, county governments called for an overhaul. Hours before Newsom’s event, the California State Association of Counties urged state lawmakers to set up a new system for routing state homelessness funding through single, regional plans with clear responsibilities assigned to local governments.

  • Graham Knaus, counties association executive director: “We have to either create a simple system where the state holds us accountable for clear responsibilities… or we should stop expecting more progress on homelessness… this is about bringing us all together, so that there’s less finger pointing.”

CalMatters covers the Capitol: CalMatters has you covered with guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have Spanish-language versions for the Legislature’s demographics and the state government explainer.

We’re also spotlighting Sunshine Week — devoted to renewing interest in making public records available, keeping government meetings open and increasing public participation in government. Read more about that here.


1 Banning food chemicals

A shopper eyes a food item in a grocery aisle. Photo via iStock
A shopper eyes a food item in a grocery aisle. Photo via iStock

There’s a good chance that the candy, tortillas, shredded cheese, or sugar cookies you bought at the grocery store (and later happily ate) contain one or more of the chemicals that officials — along with healthcare workers, scientists and even one celebrity chef — hope to ban in California.

Democratic Assemblymembers Jesse Gabriel from Woodland Hills and Buffy Wicks from Oakland held a briefing on Thursday about their bill that would ban the manufacturing, sale and distribution of food products that contain five additives linked to cancer and behavioral problems in children.

Europe has already banned the use of these substances in food. And in the U.S., a few private companies, including Coca-Cola and Whole Foods, do not use them in their products or sell food containing these chemicals in their stores. But for proponents of the bill, these ad hoc efforts do not go far enough. They say a statewide ban is necessary because the federal Food and Drug Administration is slow to act. 

  • Andrew Zimmern, celebrity chef: Food and chemical companies “have rigged the food chemical review system to put the fox in charge of the hen house. Since 2000, 99% of the food chemicals that have been added to the food supply were reviewed for safety by the chemical companies, not the FDA.”

Asked to respond, a FDA spokesperson told CalMatters it does not comment on proposed or pending legislation.

2 A joint effort for housing

Apartment buildings under construction across the street from the MacArthur BART station in Oakland on July 19, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Apartment buildings under construction across the street from the MacArthur BART station in Oakland on July 19, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

From Alejandro Lazo of CalMatters’ California Divide team:

It’s not every day one of California’s biggest housing proponents teams up with a globally known environmental group to support a workaround to one of the state’s premier environmental laws.

But that’s the political alignment behind Assembly Bill 68, announced Thursday by Assemblymember Chris Ward and co-sponsored by California YIMBY and the Nature Conservancy.

The California YIMBY group, whose acronym stands for “yes in my backyard,” is a major supporter of building more housing in the state. The conservancy, based in Arlington, Va., is known for purchasing land to be set aside for environmental preservation. 

The bill “will make it faster and easier to build homes near jobs, schools, transit and other community resources,” Ward told CalMatters. “But also couples that by protecting Californians from severe wildfires and floods, from the harm that sprawl and exurban development has.”

Having the two groups backing the measure is “smart politics,” he added. 

The bill, titled the “Housing and Climate Solutions Act,” would allow for denser housing projects such as apartments and multi-family homes in certain designated climate-friendly parts of cities that local governments have already identified. The bill would discourage sprawl in environmentally sensitive areas more prone to natural disasters such as floods and wildfires, proponents said.

That means the projects would need to be approved or denied within a specified time period and put limits on what kind of reviews can be made by local jurisdictions or planning boards. The proposed legislation would also exempt certain projects from review under the California Environmental Quality Act — better known as CEQA.

  • Elizabeth O’Donoghue, director of the Sustainable and Resilient Communities Strategy at The Nature Conservancy: “We need to build housing, but we also need to build it in a place that’s climate resilient and protects communities.” 

The fast-tracking would target “climate smart parcels,” areas already identified by local governments that have completed Sustainable Communities Strategies under existing California law. Building sprawl would only be allowed when there’s no other way to meet housing goals, or on land already approved for development, according to proponents. 

  • Melissa Breach, senior vice president of CA YIMBY: “We want to discourage a land use framework in which the easiest place to build new housing is in places that put people at incredible risk for wildfires and catastrophic floods.”

The proposal comes as lawmakers are considering a variety of housing measures this year, including making permanent one of the state’s most controversial and consequential housing laws, which expires in 2025.

3 Are state workers underpaid?

Department of General Services Custodian Anton Jennings cleans one of the water fountains on the first floor hallway of the state Capitol in Sacramento on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo
A Department of General Services custodian cleans a water fountain inside the state Capitol in Sacramento on March 18, 2020. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

From Alejandra Reyes-Velarde of CalMatters’ California Divide team:

California’s state government isn’t paying its employees enough for them to keep up with the cost of living. That’s according to a new report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which concludes that state workers essential to running critical services don’t make enough to cover basic expenses.

An analysis of wages for workers represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1000 showed that:

  • 35% of state workers represented by the union don’t earn enough to support a family of four, even with a partner who earns the same salary.
  • 69% don’t earn enough to support themselves and a child on their own.
  • 5% of state workers represented by the union don’t make enough income to cover their own basic needs.

The report also found that Black and Latino state workers and women are overrepresented in jobs that don’t pay a family-sustaining wage.

  • The study: “Many struggling state workers represented by SEIU Local 1000 are employed in occupations that provide services that are essential to the public’s health and quality of life, including custodians, health care workers, and librarians.”

With more than 50,000 members, SEIU Local 1000 is the largest of the 21 bargaining units that represent more than 80% of the 200,000-plus state workers. Among those without unions are legislative staffers, but they’re trying again to pass a bill giving them bargaining rights.


CalMatters Commentary

The decision by state water officials to bypass environmental rules for water storage allowed greater harm to salmon populations and amounts to a civil rights violation for Native American tribal members, argue Kasil Willie, staff attorney for Save California Salmon and a member of Walker River Paiute Tribe, and Regina Chichizola, executive director of Save California Salmon.

Suspending environmental regulations for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — then reverse it two weeks later — is the kind of flexible approach California needs to manage the water crisis, writes Charley Wilson, executive director of the Southern California Water Coalition, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization founded to educate Californians about water issues.

Seeking youth with opinions: Sign up for a webinar on opinion writing today to help students prepare submissions for our Earth Day Op-Ed Contest. Share the invite with a young person who wants to write about community environmental issues.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

Political strife is harming California high school students, study says // Los Angeles Times 

California’s COVID misinformation law is entangled in lawsuits // California Healthline

As Texas judge weighs abortion pill ban, here’s what’s at stake for CA // San Francisco Chronicle

Fresno County will sue California over offensive name law // The Fresno Bee

How long is the border traffic wait? There’ll be an app for that. // The San Diego Union-Tribune

San Francisco supervisors open to reparations with $5M payouts // AP News

Bay Area regulators vote to end sales of key gas home appliances // San Francisco Chronicle

Recount of Oakland mayor’s race is dead in the water // Oaklandside

O.C. bans TikTok from government devices because of security risks // Los Angeles Times

Even ‘affordable housing’ in LA isn’t affordable // LAist

With rental aid ending, Sacramento homeless population could double // Sacramento Bee

After chaotic fight to save Oakland schools, closures again considered // Mercury News

SDPD staffing crisis expected to continue for years // Voice of San Diego

Opinion: No, my Japanese-American parents were not ‘interned’ during WWII. They were incarcerated // Los Angeles Times

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