California has faced the most acute and high profile prison crises of perhaps any state, including federal court orders requiring the state to reduce overcrowding and effectively taking over the state’s inmate health care system. Many states can learn from the California experience and take pro-active steps to avoid federal court intervention that removes the issue from the democratic process and can impose costs beyond the ability of policymakers to manage.
California is also known for the fact that it spends $46,000 per prison inmate compared with $18,000 spent by Texas, but has a substantially higher re-incarceration rate than the Lone Star State.1 One major reason for the difference in cost is that California, which unlike Texas, has collective bargaining for state corrections workers and pays its prison guards about twice what Texas does.2 In fact, some California corrections officers make in excess of $100,000.3 In recent years, California’s powerful prison guard union has lobbied against corrections reforms.4
Nonetheless, facing a court overcrowding order to either release inmates or create more capacity, the state finally began adopting significant reforms in 2009 under the leadership of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. First, performance-based probation funding was unanimously passed. Under the California Community Corrections Performance Incentive Act of 2009 (SB678), half of the future state savings on prisons from fewer probation revocations are sent back to counties that produced the savings. Second, geriatric parole legislation signed in September 2010 was estimated to possibly save the state as much as $200 million a year.5
In an October 26, 2010 article, the Merced Sun Star noted:“Few accused California Govs. Ronald Reagan or George Deukmejian of being “soft on crime…During Reagan’s tenure, the number of prisoners per 100,000 Californians was 121; during Deukmejian’s tenure, it was 230. Last year, it was 436.”6
Governor Schwarzenegger declared in 2004: “”Our prison population now is more than 167,000 people and still growing year after year. If we imprisoned people at 1994 rates, we’d have 145,000 prisoners. That is a doable goal. Our sentencing rules have doubled the number of aging prisoners in just 10 years. We’ve now got more than 16,000 prisoners over the age of 50. We’re going to turn the tide of increased prison population. We’re going to show that California can reduce crime and downsize our prison system.”
Now, California policymakers must build on the recent policy advances to overcome decades of failure and turn the corrections tide in favor of taxpayers and public safety.
Marc Levin | December 5, 2011