BY DAN WALTERS
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.”
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.