What can $75,560 get you in Cal­i­for­nia? A prison cell

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY DON THOMP­SON

SACRA­MENTO, CALIF. | The cost of im­pris­on­ing each of Cal­i­for­nia’s 130,000 in­mates is ex­pected to reach a record $75,560 in the next year, enough to cover the an­nual cost of at­tend­ing Har­vard Univer­sity and still have plenty left over for pizza and beer.

The price for each in­mate has dou­bled since 2005, even as court orders re­lated to over­crowd­ing have re­duced the pop­u­la­tion by about one-quar­ter. Salaries and ben­e­fits for prison guards and med­i­cal providers drove much of the in­crease.

The re­sult is a per-in­mate cost that is the na­tion’s high­est and $2,000 above tu­ition, fees, room and board, and other ex­penses to at­tend Har­vard.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s spend­ing plan for the fis­cal year that starts July 1 in­cludes a record $11.4 bil­lion for the cor­rec­tions depart­ment while also pre­dict­ing that there will be 11,500 fewer in­mates in four years be­cause vot­ers in Novem­ber ap­proved ear­lier re­leases for many in­mates.

Since 2015, Cal­i­for­nia’s per-in­mate costs have surged nearly $10,000, or about 13 per­cent. New York is a distant sec­ond in over­all costs at about $69,000.

Crit­ics say with fewer in­mates, the costs should be falling.

“Now that we’re in­car­cer­at­ing less, we haven’t ramped the sys­tem back down,” said Chris Hoene, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the left-lean­ing Cal­i­for­nia Bud­get & Pol­icy Cen­ter.

For ex­am­ple, the cor­rec­tions depart­ment has one em­ployee for ev­ery two in­mates, com­pared with one em­ployee for roughly ev­ery four in­mates in 1994.

Cal­i­for­nia was sued for over­crowd­ing, and to com­ply with a fed­eral court-im­posed pop­u­la­tion cap, the Brown ad­min­is­tra­tion now keeps most lower-level of­fend­ers in county jails in­stead of state prisons. Ad­di­tion­ally, vot­ers in 2014 re­duced penal­ties for drug and prop­erty crimes and last fall ap­proved the ear­lier re­leases.

Repub­li­can state Sen. Jim Nielsen said re­form­ers falsely promised a “prison div­i­dend” from sav­ings re­lated to the changes. In­stead, there’s now an uptick in many crimes, and he’s wor­ried it will lead to an in­flux of new in­mates that will cost more to house.

Joan Peter­silia, co-direc­tor of the Stan­ford Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Cen­ter, said it was “highly pre­dictable” that per­in­mate costs would in­crease even as the pop­u­la­tion de­creased.

“We re­leased all the low-risk, kind of low-need, and we kept in the high-risk, high-need,” she said.

Cal­i­for­nia is not alone. The Vera In­sti­tute of Jus­tice, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.based re­form group, said Cal­i­for­nia is one of 10 states that re­duced its in­mate pop­u­la­tion only to see prison spend­ing rise.

Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Fi­nance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the state faces unique pres­sures, including fed­eral over­sight of prison health care that has driven up costs and re­mote prisons that are more ex­pen­sive to op­er­ate.

Real sav­ings won’t come un­less the in­mate pop­u­la­tion drops so low that the state can start clos­ing prisons, said Drew Soder­borg, a crim­i­nal jus­tice an­a­lyst with the non­par­ti­san Leg­isla­tive An­a­lyst’s Of­fice.

But the fed­eral pop­u­la­tion cap makes it dif­fi­cult to do that with­out ex­ceed­ing crowd­ing lim­its in in­di­vid­ual prisons.

“As we con­tinue to re­duce the over­all pop­u­la­tion, we are able to achieve sav­ings,” Mr. Palmer said. “But there are a few things that are push­ing cost pres­sures in the other di­rec­tion,” led by em­ployee com­pen­sa­tion and re­tire­ment.


The price for each in­mate in Cal­i­for­nia has dou­bled since 2005, even as court orders re­lated to over­crowd­ing have re­duced the pop­u­la­tion by about one-quar­ter.

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