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Rising “Corrections” Costs a Bad Deal for Taxpayers

Wednesday March 16th, 2016   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 5:35am PDT   •  

PrisonHands_MLAs we recently noted, injustices such as wrongful imprisonment, needless trial expenses and prosecutorial errors cost California taxpayers $282 million from 1989 to 2012. These costs are hardly the only problem in the criminal justice system, as Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee observes.

Walters has been on the job since the 1970s and recalls that during Jerry Brown’s first stretch as governor, California’s prisons held some 20,000 inmates. When Brown became governor again three decades later, state prisons held 160,000 inmates. Spending on prisons was about $10 billion a year, as much, Walters notes, as California’s entire general fund budget during Brown’s first stint as governor.

While Brown was out of the governor’s office, California built 22 new prisons, but despite this construction spree state prison facilities remained overcrowded. Federal judges have demanded reductions and after some resistance, Jerry Brown proposed a “realignment” policy that dropped the number of inmates from 166,000 to 129,000. Walters, however, cautions those who think that the inmate reduction of 22 percent would also reduce state spending on “corrections.”

In the early going, costs dropped $1 billion but the realignment plan ate up the savings. In short order, “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.” By Walters’ account, “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.” Contrast that with the $32,646 annual cost for a student at UC Berkeley, living in a campus residence.

Politicians and prison bosses strive to explain the rising costs but taxpayers might derive more benefit from Dan Walters’ summary of the matter: “Bottom line: inmates down 22 percent, costs up nearly 20 percent. Such a deal.” The lesson here is that judicial decrees, however nobly intentioned, carry no guarantee of success or savings. That invites speculation about the prospects for reform not only in prisons but all levels of government.

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March 2016