Analysts for the state Legislature determined the state could save $20 million in private prison costs due to Proposition 47, the statewide ballot initiative voters approved in November that makes drug possession and minor theft charges misdemeanor crimes.
However, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office cautioned that the potential savings is difficult to estimate because Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has not yet provided the usual four-year projection of the state’s prison population.
The governor’s 2015-16 budget proposal did not provide a projection, citing uncertainty on the effect of Proposition 47, according to the analyst report.
"The state has just now begun to implement Proposition 47, and as a result, there is significant uncertainty in many of the variables that affect long-range prison population projections," said finance department spokesman H.D. Palmer. He said an estimated 1,900-inmate drop in the next year "will be further refined as more data becomes available."
Most criminals affected by the ballot initiative already serve their sentences in local jails. Even so, legislative analysts say it is possible Brown's finance department is underestimating the reduction to prison populations.
Coupled with a $36-million project to expand three existing prisons, the analysts say California could potentially reduce its use of private overflow prisons and save $20 million "under almost any scenario."
However, the report notes, the assumption is uncertain and lawmakers should demand a more detailed accounting from Brown's administration. Without long-term projections, the report states, "it is impossible for the Legislature to make an informed decision" on prison spending.
Legislative hearings on the state corrections budget and effects of Proposition 47 are scheduled to start in early March.
The shift in prison population is separate from an expected $100 million to $200 million in state savings the legislative report predicts Proposition 47 will generate in 2016-17. The ballot initiative requires that savings be distributed for drug abuse, mental health and truancy prevention grants.