Correctional System Needs Correcting

Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) is chairwoman of the state Senate Democratic Caucus and heads the newly created Select Committee on the California Correctional System.

Never before has California faced such a huge budget gap -- $34.8 billion. To solve this problem, the governor has proposed slashing programs serving the poor, sick and elderly, hacking away at education funding, doubling community college fees and derailing transportation projects.

Meanwhile, spending as usual goes on at the California Department of Corrections and the California Youth Authority, with their collective budget of more than $6 billion. In fact, the Department of Corrections is enjoying a proposed budget increase.

This is wrong. We can no longer destroy California's infrastructure while pumping money into our correctional systems without questioning the policies and practices that contribute to the state debt.

It costs $26,000 per year to incarcerate an adult in a state prison. That same inmate could attend UCLA at less than half the cost. It costs $49,000 to house a juvenile in our Youth Authority system. That same inmate could attend Harvard for $38,000.

Spending on corrections eats up about 9% of the state's general fund. And what are we getting for our money? Finishing schools for felons, whose graduates, more often than not, offend again once they're released.

No one is suggesting that we set all inmates free. Public safety is and should remain our highest priority. Nonetheless, we can better protect taxpayers while spending more wisely.

The Department of Corrections, which houses 161,000 adult inmates, reports a recidivism rate of 56%. The Youth Authority, home to 5,500 wards 25 and younger, reports a rate of 47%. Some independent studies say these rates are much higher. California returns more parolees to prison per capita than any other state in the nation. In 2000, California returned 90,000 parole violators to prison -- a thirtyfold increase from 1980, according to the Urban Institute. This suggests that too many are returned for "technical violations," such as failing to report regularly to a parole officer.

Nearly two-thirds of our prison admissions are returning parolees, compared with a national average of one-third. This costs $900 million annually. If California's return rate was more in line with the national average, we could save $500 million a year.

How do we get there? For starters, we could alter parole conditions for nonviolent offenders after they've done their time. For instance, restricting parole to 12 months would save the Department of Corrections $272 million from 2003 to 2005.

The rising cost of prison health care also demands reform. Between 1998 and 2001, medical spending jumped 65% to $724 million. Though health costs have been driven up by successful lawsuits over past inadequacies, we are spending too much on old and infirm inmates who are a greater threat to our fiscal stability than to public safety.

A recent nonpartisan government analysis estimated that it costs $47,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate older than 60, nearly double the cost of the average, younger inmates. Older inmates often suffer illnesses that are expensive to treat. There are about 6,000 inmates 55 and older in state prisons -- nearly 4% of the population.

"Three strikes" and other tough-on-crime measures have already begun to exacerbate the problem, as more inmates age behind prison bars. The choice is ours: spend more of our green on graying inmates or devise better ways to manage the geriatric prison population.

In this fiscal crisis, much has been made of the prison guard union's labor contract. That is a sexy issue because it involves power and politics. However, significant savings -- through adopting sound public policy measures -- can be immediately found elsewhere, such as in reforms in whom we parole and how often. Delaying the opening of the new prison at Delano, closing one of our women's prisons (no longer needed because of a declining female prison population) and increasing "good time" credits for certain inmates would save $75 million per year.

There are many other cost-cutting options that merit consideration. Some would require legislation; others won't.

Tackling the corrections budget is difficult because most politicians want to claim they stand for law and order. However, there is merit to the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Maintaining the prison status quo while cutting funding for essential social programs, such as education, chips away at the future of law and order in California.

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