Prison inmates are down, but costs still going up

Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies inspect a cell block at the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca says he plans to implement all the reforms suggested by a commission in the wake of allegations that a culture of violence flourished in his jails. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

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When Jerry Brown’s first governorship began in 1975, California had about 20,000 men and women behind bars in its prison system, but that number would increase more than eight-fold.

As crime rates rose to record levels in the 1970s, Brown, the Legislature and voters responded with laws creating new crimes and/or increasing prison terms for old offenses. Those laws, more that were added in the 1980s and 1990s and more unforgiving attitudes by prosecutors and judges, triggered a flood of new prison inmates.

Democrat Brown and his Republican successors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, undertook a massive prison construction program that eventually added 23 new human warehouses.

By 1990, the state’s prison population had quintupled to 100,000 and by the time Brown returned to the governorship in 2011, it had reached 162,000, just slightly below its peak.

Since then, however, it has declined sharply to a current 129,000, thanks to federal court orders attacking prison overcrowding, more lenient attitudes on parole and probation, diversion of some low-level felons into county jails, and two ballot measures – one sponsored by Brown himself – that reduced penalties.

Some law enforcement authorities contend that California’s penal pendulum has swung too far, and that having fewer miscreants locked up and more on the streets is sparking a new surge of crime.

Voters could weigh in on the issue under a proposed ballot measure that would restore harsher penalties for some crimes, even as the Legislature considers bills to lighten sentences even more.

One might expect that with prison populations having dropped by about 25 percent, costs would also have decreased.

Not so. In fact, they have continued to increase, and with fewer felons behind bars, the per-inmate cost has skyrocketed to about $75,000 a year, roughly the price of a Stanford University education and more than twice the national average.

Brown’s budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year pegs state prison and parole costs at $12 billion. But that’s not the total cost because one of the steps to reduce overcrowding was to shift more felons into county jails and probation programs, with money – $2 billion currently – to pay for them.

That $14 billion is only slightly less than what taxpayers spend through the state budget on higher education. But why, one might wonder, did costs escalate as the number of inmates declined?

The biggest reason is that the system is still housing more inmates than its designed capacity and, therefore, no prisons have been closed. Fundamental operating costs, including the number of prison guards and their ever-increasing salaries and fringe benefits, especially pensions, are unaffected.

Another big factor is that – also thanks to federal court orders – prison health care costs have exploded to $20,000 per inmate. That’s by far the highest in the nation, nearly four times the national average, and also roughly twice the average cost of health care for Californians not behind bars.

The future is cloudy. Under the more lenient laws and policies in effect now, inmate populations may decline slowly, perhaps to the point at which some prisons could be shuttered.

However, prison unions and the communities that see their prisons as economic boons will resist closures. And if the pending ballot measure on sentencing passes, the inmate decline could be stopped.

As the last four decades have shown, what we euphemistically call “criminal justice” is ultimately just another political issue that, like others, is subject to the whims of voters and politicians.

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  1. JLSeagull says

    With 700+inmates on death row at $75K per inmate the savings would be up to $52.5M on the prison budget if the state would start executing them. Not sure whether the $75K per inmate includes the $20K health care cost.

  2. Rope is cheaper

  3. vistacharlie says

    we need to reduce the benefits involved with prison. we need to establish a California work farm for selected inmates. they wold pay for room and board and save some money of their own. Further it would reduce the quantity of illegal alien farm workers needed.

  4. Bogiewheel says

    The prison union, in this state, is all powerful and places much excess
    pressure on the political scene. Unions should never be allowed in the
    politcal process as they disrupt the “one person, one vote”.

  5. First, every, and I mean every government desk, position, office, department, agency, anything funded and supported by tax dollars should be audited by a Citizen panel every five years. Said Citizen panel would have authority to publicize findings and direct changes necessary to reduce cost and improve efficiency.
    Second, punishment must fit the crime, from the murderer/rapist to the petty thief. Death penalty should be carried out as soon as possible, with limited numbers of retrials. Also, there should be no, no pain killers or sedatives for the criminal. Victims were denied thus the criminal should be hung by the neck until dead! There, we just saved a ton of tax dollars. And odds are your capital crime rates will drop dramatically. Same with theft – prison time plus restitution times four. I think you get the idea.
    We have lost our way in the courts, judges, and punishment. Swift judgement and swift execution of the punishment.

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