Image: Crowded prison gym at San Quentin prison
Eric Risberg  /  AP file
Several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at California's San Quentin prison on May 20. The state is debating whether it should release prison inmates early as a cash-saving move. Thanks in part to strict sentencing laws, it spends roughly 11 percent of its general fund budget to house inmates.
updated 8/23/2009 3:53:00 PM ET 2009-08-23T19:53:00

California devotes 10 percent of its operating budget to locking up criminals in state prisons, one of the highest rates in the nation and an amount that is becoming a drag on the state's ability to deliver other services.

The trend toward higher prison costs, which has been developing over the past three decades, has complicated attempts to balance California's deficit-plagued budget and is at the heart of the most recent deadlock in the Legislature.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many Democratic lawmakers are seeking to cut $1.2 billion from corrections spending as part of their plan to close the state's deficit. The most recent proposal to do so involves diverting some 27,000 inmates to county jails, home detention or away from incarceration altogether. Those prospects have led to unanimous opposition from Republican lawmakers and from some Democrats who have their eyes on higher office and don't want to appear soft on crime.

While the legislative debate has been focused on how to make the immediate cuts, a broader issue is in play: How can a state with 38 million people that is a breeding ground for some of the nation's most violent street gangs maintain public safety without undermining other state services?

Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger say the state must revise its sentencing laws in a way that will reduce the number of people being sent to state prisons while ensuring that they are monitored. Republicans say there is enough bloat in the corrections budget to reduce costs without putting potentially dangerous felons back on the street.

Prison spending higher than education
If the divide persists in the current debate and compromise fails, $1 billion or more may have to be cut from elsewhere, forcing more reductions to health care, welfare and higher education programs.

The cost of housing state prison inmates has grown so much in the past decade that California now spends more incarcerating 167,000 adults than it does to educate 226,000 students in its 10-campus University of California system.

"In what civilized state or country do you spend more on prisons than on higher education?" said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento. "That's a compelling argument to vote for reform."

California spends more on corrections than all other states except Michigan, according to a 2008 survey by the National Association of State Budget Officers. In the current fiscal year, Michigan will dedicate nearly 20 percent of its general fund spending to state prisons.

That figure was about 11 percent for California in 2008, nearly a fourfold increase from 30 years ago. Between 2000 and 2008, the state's corrections budget doubled to $10.8 billion.

Some cite the explosion in prison spending as a poor reflection of the state's values.

"I don't understand how California has managed to build 24 prisons over the last 25 years but only one additional research university," University of California President Mark Yudof said during a recent appearance in Sacramento. "I don't understand how the prison population is supposed to grow more than the university student population."

Reasons for high prison costs
There are several reasons typically cited for the growth in California's prison spending.

Tougher sentencing rules, such as the three-strikes law for repeat offenders and Jessica's Law for sex offenders have sent more people to prison and kept them locked up longer. Schwarzenegger and many Democrats want to establish a commission to recommend new guidelines.

Federal court mandates have forced the state to spend billions of dollars improving its delivery of medical and mental health care to inmates at the same time an aging inmate population demands more health care services. Prison health care spending in California has grown from $680 million in 2001 to nearly $3 billion in the 2008 fiscal year.

Rising salaries and more hires for the prison staff also are a factor, said Dave Lewis, deputy director of fiscal services at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

According to the Pew Center on the States, the annual cost of housing an inmate in California grew from $2,751 in 1999 to $6,834 in 2008.

Debate resumes Monday
Only when the recession deepened was the state forced to cut spending. California has budgeted $8.2 billion for corrections for the current fiscal year, or roughly 10 percent of an $85 billion general fund. The final amount depends on whether lawmakers can make the $1.2 billion in cuts sought by Schwarzenegger.

Lawmakers differ over how to achieve those savings and will resume their debate on Monday.

Republicans, opposed to releasing inmates early, said money could be saved by reducing prison guard staffing, containing inmate health care costs and closing four of the six juvenile camps, which they say are no longer needed.

They note that when compared to the 12 states with the highest prison populations, California has more guards per inmate than all the others. In their view, releasing inmates before they have served their full sentences amounts to nothing more than a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"The consequences of this legislation boils down to one question: What will those of you who vote for this bill do when a person is released from prison and murders an innocent child?" Sen. Mimi Walters, a Republican from Lake Forest, said during Thursday's debate.

Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, said lawmakers must act soon to control the prison population. Corrections spending could grow to 15 percent of the general fund if left unchecked, further eroding support for higher education, social services and other programs.

A fellow Democrat, Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, agreed that the time to make long-term changes is now.

"California must stop being the example of what not to do," he said.

More on: California

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