Bad Policies Are Really What's Driving California's Huge Prison Costs

Governor Schwarzenegger’s flippant remark last month that California could reduce prison costs by shipping 20,000 inmates to Mexico is a dangerous sign that he may be giving up on serious corrections reform – even as the dual crises of overcrowding and overspending intensify. His office has now rejected that off-the-cuff scheme, but the governor stands behind another questionable proposal to cut costs through privatization, signaling that he may be taking his eye off of real solutions in favor of political posturing.


To be fair, during his tenure, Governor Schwarzenegger has gone much further than his recent predecessors to propose much-needed reforms – moves supported by corrections experts, academics and advocates alike. Unfortunately, what he’s been unable to muster is the political strategy to achieve such a policy shift in Sacramento.


The Legislature was able to pass some prison and parole reforms last year after a significant effort for which they deserve some credit. Unfortunately, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office doesn’t expect even those modest reforms to amount to much. The state budget assumed an inmate reduction of 18,500 in 2009-10 rising to 25,000 in 2010-11. The LAO now anticipates the inmate reduction to reach just 1,600 – or 1% of the prison population – in 2009-10 and 11,800 in 2010-11.


There are two very distinct and crucial measures of the feasibility of any population reduction plan: Can it be done safely? And can it be done politically?


The answer to the former is absolutely. It is simply not true that California needs to keep 170,000 people in state prisons on any given day and another 120,000+ Californians on parole. This isn’t my opinion; it’s the opinion reached by decades of research and expert analysis. It’s also the experience of other states. Several states – including New York – have seen their crime rates fall even faster than California’s while they have simultaneously reduced their prison populations.


Even as California struggles with prison overcrowding, Colorado, Kansas, New York and Michigan, among others, are either closing prisons or struggling with what to do about so many empty cells.


It’s worth noting that, even in California, per-capita incarceration rates have typically been much lower than they are now. The state prison population has grown by over 500% since 1980, rising from under 30,000 to about 170,000 at the end of 2009. In the same period, according to federal statistics, the state population grew by just 55%.


One in 161 Californian adults is now in prison and one in 94 adults in the state is either in prison or on parole.


Who are all these people? Too many of them were convicted of petty offenses, what in prior years were misdemeanors that landed someone in jail for six months to a year. Now even petty offenses – including stealing a car radio or being in possession of a tiny amount of drugs – can land you in state prison for years at a cost to the taxpayer of $49,000 per inmate per year. If an inmate is older or has a health problem, the cost rises significantly. Most other states handle this level of offense at the local level.


By opting for a policy of sending low-level offenders to state prison, California is far out of step with other states – and out of time.


Independent of any privatization plans or other attempts to lower correctional officers’ wages, cutting prison costs must include reforms to sentencing, probation and parole with respect to non-violent offenders, especially drug offenders, to bring California law into conformity with other states and Western democracies.  To talk about cost cutting without addressing one of the fundamental drivers of rising costs is misguided and short-sighted.


The LAO recognized in its most recent report on the corrections budget, that “over the past two decades, prison costs have increased largely as a result of increases in the inmate and parolee populations, federal court orders to improve inmate health care, and negotiated increases in compensation for correctional employees.”[1]


Reducing the number of prisoners – not just lowering the cost of imprisoning this massive population – must be the state’s priority. It’s a moral, public health, public safety and fiscal imperative. It’s also what the federal judges have demanded.


As for the second measure of feasibility for any population reduction plan (Can it be done politically?), I’m not the only one hoping Sacramento will give us a new answer this year.


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