Prison Spending Increased With Lower Prisoner Count

By David Eugene Archer Sr.

Even though the California prisoner count has dropped, spending has increased, according to a Sacramento Bee report.

The report, written by Dan Walters, states that “something of a peace dividend was promised – or at least assumed – when California, according to federal court pressure, sharply reduced its prison population.”

The number of inmates declined sharply in just a few years, from 166,000 to 129,000, according to the California Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor.

“One might think that reducing the prison population by 22 percent would also sharply reduce the state’s outlays for what is called – perhaps laughingly – ‘corrections’,” says Walters.

Initially, according to Taylor, it did have that effect, lowering prison costs by about $1 billion, or 10 percent. But all of those savings – and then some – went to counties to pay for Realignment. After the initial decline, the state’s prison costs began to climb and have jumped by nearly $2 billion since 2012-13 – not counting an increase in what is paid to counties, now $1.1 billion, stated Walters.

“Therefore, true prison spending approaches $12 billion a year now, and the average spent on each state inmate has soared to more than $63,000 a year,” Walters reported.

Bottom line, inmates down 22 percent, costs up nearly 20 percent

Prison officials attribute the increase largely to salary increases and federal court pressure to improve inmate care. The prison system has about 62,000 authorized positions now (but only about 54,000 jobs actually filled). That’s down from 68,000 in 2010, but the payroll, just under $5 billion a year, is virtually unchanged, The Bee said.

California went from having about 20,000 prison inmates during Gov. Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor to more than 160,000 when he returned to the office three decades later, and spending on prisons had jumped twentyfold, stated the report.

Although the state had built 22 new prisons during his absence, the system was severely overcrowded and federal judges were demanding reduction. Initially, Brown resisted, but after the U.S. Supreme Court acted in 2011, he embraced “Realignment,” which pays counties to handle more newly convicted low-level felons, reducing prison inmates by attrition, said Walters.        

But voters also approved Proposition 47 in 2014, which has meant 4,000-plus fewer inmates, according to Walters.

Taylor’s office and Brown’s Department of Finance jointly told voters in their official summaries of Proposition 47 that “Net state criminal justice savings…could reach the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” stated Walters.

The savings were to be spent on drug treatment, juvenile delinquency prevention and other programs to reduce incarceration.

But when the Department of Finance made its savings estimate for the budget this year, it was just $29.3 million, reported The Bee.

Taylor responded that the number should be much higher, at least $135 million, and advocates for drug treatment and other services were outraged, said Walters.

The discrepancy was aired in a state budget hearing, with both sides defending their numbers, but the issue remains unresolved. “Bottom line, inmates down 22 percent, costs up nearly 20 percent,” Walters said. “Such a deal.”

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