Cost of imprisonment soars to record high in California

Updated June 4, 2017 - 4:24 pm

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 attack costs

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 per-inmate 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.

Other states see spending rise

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,” Palmer said. “But there are a few things that are pushing cost pressures in the other direction,” led by employee compensation and retirement.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is in the middle of a contract that will cost taxpayers more than $1 billion over three years.

California’s average $70,020 wage for prison and jail guards was topped only by New Jersey’s $71,430 last year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Palmer said the contract includes concessions that Brown sought to help reduce the state’s long-term costs of providing retirees’ health care benefits.

But the contract also includes sweeteners like more money for working in remote prisons. And what had been a $1,560 annual incentive for remaining physically fit now goes directly into officers’ base pay.

The union will work with lawmakers to try to trim the budget, spokeswoman Nichol Gomez said in an email, but she noted that the more serious, longer-term inmates that remain carry higher costs.

“Vocational, academic, mental health and medical programs are not cheap, but we’re doing our best to provide programs that give people the best chance to succeed once released,” she said.

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