A poor prison plan for California


When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed shifting female inmates out of prisons to community detention centers in 2006, the Legislature said no. When he asked lawmakers the following year to approve $10.9 billion in bonds to build new prisons while also reforming sentencing laws and parole rules, they reduced the bond package and jettisoned the reforms. Last year, when he asked them to cut the prison budget by $1.2 billion, they fell about $200 million short. We don’t blame the governor for being frustrated, but we do fault him for apparently giving up.

Schwarzenegger’s latest prison plan, unveiled in his State of the State address earlier this month, is less a serious policy proposal than a hunk of red meat tossed out at voters who are understandably furious about cuts in education spending. It combines a deeply destructive budgeting formula with an untested theory about prison privatization. Yet, if there ever was a time when California needed its leaders to get serious about the prisons, it’s now. The skyrocketing cost of administering the corrections system is helping to drive the state to the brink of financial collapse, even as the system’s overcrowded conditions and abysmal medical care are violating federal law -- and forcing the courts to demand expensive fixes that exacerbate the budget problem.

Schwarzenegger’s cynical response is to pit the prisons against colleges and universities, proposing a ballot initiative mandating that the state cannot spend more than 7% of its budget on corrections or less than 10% on higher education. We’ve already discussed the dangers of this kind of ballot-box budgeting, which puts decision-makers in a straitjacket and is largely to blame for the state government’s deficit crisis. But what has received less attention is the governor’s strategy for getting the corrections budget to 7%, from its current level of about 10%: privatizing the prisons.


Many politicians, especially on the GOP side of the aisle, are attracted to private prisons, under the theory that private industry runs everything more efficiently than government. That hasn’t really panned out in other states. Studies on whether rent-a-reformatories are cheaper for taxpayers than government-run prisons have had conflicting results, largely because the data are hard to compare. Opinions also differ widely on whether private prisons, which tend to have lower guard-to-inmate ratios than public lockups, experience more violence. It’s safe to say that if differences exist, they aren’t very big.

It’s not unreasonable to think that private prisons could be more successful in California than they have been elsewhere, because prison costs here are so out of line. A series of highly generous contracts with the prison guards union, whose political contributions make it a force to be reckoned with in Sacramento, contributed to a 32% jump in the corrections budget between 2006 and 2009, until the financial crisis forced legislators to make cuts in the corrections budget last fall. California spends far more per inmate ($49,000 a year) than any other state. A shortage of guards not only leads to abuse of the overtime system -- according to a September state audit, nearly a third of base-level correctional officers make so much money working overtime that their annual salaries exceed those of managers two pay grades higher -- but the guards have negotiated such bountiful benefit packages that it’s actually cheaper for the state to continue paying overtime to older officers than to hire new ones to end the staffing shortage. The audit concluded that it costs between $3,200 and $7,800 more per inmate annually to house them in a California prison than in a comparable private facility.

Yet that doesn’t necessarily suggest that privatizing the prisons is a good idea -- and it doesn’t come close to suggesting we could lower the prison budget to 7% of the general fund solely through privatization. California’s prison population has soared in the past two decades because the voters have passed ever-tougher sentencing laws while also tying the hands of judges to give them less flexibility in setting terms. Privatization won’t solve either problem.

Moreover, private prisons come with a host of complications and trade-offs. Perhaps most serious is a loss of accountability and transparency. It’s already hard for the public to find out what’s going on behind the barbed wire, but abusive behavior by guards, inmate violence, accounting shenanigans and other common prison woes would be even further shielded under private control. What’s more, the state might only be trading one influential lobby (the prison guards) for another (private prison operators and the communities that rely on them for jobs). Creating a prison-industrial complex with a financial incentive for locking people up could distort state politics, escalate prison spending and encourage overcrowding at least as much as the current system does.

The debate over prisons is in some ways similar to the debate over education, in which free-marketeers battle organized labor over charter schools. We think charters are a worthwhile experiment that can help make public schools better -- and the same could apply to private prisons, if they’re given proper oversight. California already has a handful of private lockups, but they are very low-security facilities. We’d favor a change in union contracts and state laws that would allow privatization of a few higher-security prisons, so the impacts on costs and accountability could be assessed.

In other words, Schwarzenegger has a terrific idea for a pilot program. But to suggest that such an untested and possibly dangerous experiment is the solution to our prison problems, or that it could quickly produce a dramatic drop in expenditures, is disingenuous and irresponsible. What’s needed is for the Legislature to do the job it failed to do last year and approve more meaningful parole reforms to get nonviolent drug addicts out of cells and into rehab, create a commission to revisit California’s draconian and ineffective sentencing laws and take other steps long recommended by criminal justice experts to reduce the inmate population.