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State’s prison budget soars

Times Staff Writer

When a judge put Robert Sillen in charge of healthcare in California prisons, the medical staff was vastly underpaid. Software used to track inmates’ medical histories could not transfer information between computers.

San Quentin State Prison had only one phone line for incoming calls and none to dial out, isolating doctors who needed to talk to specialists and other professionals.

“It’s just shameful what the state has done,” Sillen said in an interview.

He has been trying to fix things, but solutions come at a price: Healthcare spending in state prisons has doubled in the last two years.

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Sillen’s court-ordered intervention is just one reason California’s prison spending has far outpaced the swelling number of inmates, contributing to the state’s projected $14-billion budget gap, which would be the worst since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election in 2003.

The prison population has grown by 8% since 2003, to more than 173,000. But the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s budget has exploded, increasing 79% to $8.5 billion, and is expected to top $10 billion next year.

Prison spending now is greater than that for any other major program except public schools and healthcare for the poor. The nonpartisan legislative analyst’s office projects 6% annual increases in prison spending for the next five years as a new prison and dozens of building additions are constructed and opened.

“We know there’s a lot coming down the pike,” said Daniel Carson, who oversees criminal justice spending for the legislative analyst.

Several causes of the department’s fiscal metastasis are the same that plague many parts of California’s $145-billion state budget: spending set at the ballot box and in the courts; bureaucratic waste; and more than a decade of neglect in construction, repairs and other improvements. In addition, failed efforts to help inmates stay away from crime after their release have boosted prison spending.

The fiscal problems might not be so severe if the prison population had dropped as crime rates went down. But it hasn’t, largely because lawmakers have been lengthening sentences and many released inmates end up back behind bars for new crimes.

Voters too have contributed to the burgeoning budget, notably by approving the three strikes initiative in 1994, which authorized life imprisonment for repeat felons, and Jessica’s Law in November 2006. The latter measure, supported by 70% of voters, restricts where released sex offenders can live and requires that they be tracked by satellite for life. Over time, the cost of tracking paroled offenders could grow to $100 million or more, the state says.

Another initiative is being readied for the ballot next year by the authors of last year’s measure: Sharon and George Runner, two Republican lawmakers from Lancaster; she in the Assembly and he in the Senate. The proposed initiative, which has not yet qualified, would require the state to spend nearly $1 billion to combat gang crimes and lengthen some prison sentences.

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“People are trying to do one-upmanship to claim ‘I’m tough on crime,’ and it has a cost to it,” said Sen. Michael Machado (D-Linden), who oversees the corrections portion of the state budget.

But spending on prison programs has not always been a good investment. For example, some programs intended to help inmates avoid future prison stays have proved ineffective.

A report by the inspector general in February found that the corrections department repeatedly failed to fix problems that had been identified in studies the department commissioned.

The report concluded that substance abuse treatment programs, which have cost taxpayers more than $1 billion since 1989, have had no effect on keeping people off drugs so that they don’t end up back in prison.

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With overflowing prisons and antiquated computers, the corrections department has proved incapable of even such basic tasks as releasing inmates when their time is up.

Department officials admitted this month that as many as 33,000 prisoners may be scheduled to remain behind bars longer than they were supposed to because corrections officials miscalculated their sentences. Over-long stays could be costing the state nearly $26 million extra each year.

Lawmakers have postponed dealing with prison overpopulation for so long that federal courts, which put Sillen in charge of medical care in early 2006, are considering imposing a cap on the number of inmates. That could result in lower prison spending.

“We have not added to our prison capacity to any significant degree since the 1980s,” said Assemblyman Roger Niello of Fair Oaks, the highest-ranking Republican on the Assembly Budget Committee. “We have for the past couple of decades neglected the development of our public infrastructure generally, and the prisons are just another part of that.”

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Legislators this year approved $7.4 billion in borrowing to add more beds in hopes of appeasing the judges, but that plan may not be sufficient to avert a court takeover of the entire system. Whatever happens, the state is committed to the spending required to pay off the debt.

Meanwhile, prison guard salaries have escalated substantially, adding to the spiraling expenses. That is due in large part to the political influence of the guards union, which donates heavily to politicians and has been an effective lobby at the Capitol.

The average monthly salary of corrections officers has increased 57% during the current decade, to $4,959 a month, according to the department.

Sillen, for his part, has raised salaries for doctors, nurses, dietitians and X-ray technicians to fill long-standing vacancies and recruit more skilled employees. Prison pharmacists, for instance, who had earned less than half the salaries they could get outside the system, have received 64% raises to as much as $123,936 a year.

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There is little sign that the growth in the prisons budget will abate any time soon. Prison healthcare spending alone has increased 263% since 2000, to $2.1 billion a year, and Sillen predicted that he would raise it by as much as $500 million for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Through the courts, Sillen has the power to order spending that not even the governor can deny.

“We’re not cutting our spending -- we’re planning on increasing our spending,” Sillen said. “Our charge is to bring the system up to constitutional muster.”

jordan.rau@latimes.com

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