Dan Walters: California prisoner count drops, spending increases



March 12, 2016 08:00 AM

Updated March 14, 2016 12:51 PM

Americans of a certain age may remember the term “peace dividend.”

It was uttered after the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s and the Cold War ended in the early 1990s – referring to an anticipated decrease in military spending.

Something of a “peace dividend” was promised – or at least assumed – when California, acceding to federal court pressure, sharply reduced its prison population.

California went from having about 20,000 prison inmates during 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.

By Brown’s return, we were spending as much on prisons, about $10 billion a year, as the entire general fund budget during his first governorship.

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.

The inmate load declined sharply in just a few years, from 166,000 to 129,000, according to the Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor. Realignment was the major driver, along with more lenient parole policies, but voters also approved Proposition 47 in 2014, lowering penalties for some low-level felonies, which has meant 4,000-plus fewer inmates.

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.”

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, and 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’s paid to counties, now $1.1 billion.

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. 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.

Meanwhile, 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.”

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, with a projection that it could reach $57 million in 2017-18.

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

The discrepancy was aired last week 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. Such a deal.

Editor’s Note: This column was changed at 12:50 p.m. March 14, 2016, to correct the per inmate spending figure to more than $63,000 a year.