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Will California’s $11 Billion Prison Outlay Survive State Budget Cuts?

As California deals with a projected $28 billion budget shortfall over the next 18 months, it remains to be seen if the requisite two-thirds of the state legislature has the political courage to make cuts to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) proposed $11 billion annual operating budget.

Democrats lean towards decreasing the prison population from the current 172,000 to 132,500 (based largely on reducing returns to custody for “technical” parole violations), while Republicans want every prisoner to remain behind bars for as long as possible. The shortsighted result is that state budget cuts may suck $5 billion out of education funds, increasing the chances that California’s marginally educated children (at an $8,000 annual education cost) will grow up to become future prison residents (at a $43,000 annual incarceration cost).

Three decades of “tough on crime” rhetoric has quintupled California’s prison population to 172,000 prisoners. An additional 123,000 parolees provide fodder to fill empty prison bunks at the discretion of parole agents, who are members of the CCPOA, the state’s powerful prison guards union. There is no incentive for the CDCR to reduce the prison population, which remains maxed out at about 190% of “design capacity.” In past years, bonds were floated to build more prisons and the CDCR’s growth went unchecked.

Until now. With a federal three-judge court considering a total takeover of CDCR to stem unconstitutional medical care and preventable prisoner deaths, state legislators are staring down the gun barrel of having to cut the prison population. But fears of being labeled “soft of crime” haunt every politician in Sacramento.

Estimating $1 billion in annual savings, Governor Schwarzenegger proposed reducing the number of low-risk prisoners by 22,000 (and cutting 4,000 prison guards), but the CCPOA and his own Republican party raised such a stink that he backed down. The CCPOA, not one to forgive such an attack on its members, even launched a short-lived recall campaign against the Governor.

The legislature eventually passed a $7.9 billion prison construction bill (AB 900), but that money has not been allocated due to high borrowing costs. On top of the prison construction expense is a demand by the federal healthcare receiver, J. Clark Kelso, for $7 billion over a three-year period for new prison hospitals and treatment centers. Kelso is clamoring for the funds while the legislature retches and glowers.

Meanwhile, CDCR’s prisoners continue to get older and sicker. Yet the obvious cost savings from releasing non-dangerous infirm prisoners has so far not moved CDCR bureaucrats or a reluctant parole board. A wheelchair-ridden 95-year-old prisoner who had nine prior parole hearings was refused release by Governor Schwarzenegger. In July 2008, high-notoriety Manson follower Susan Atkins was denied compassionate release while she was dying of brain cancer. Her medical care has cost the state an estimated $1.15 million, plus $308,000 in incarceration costs.

Approximately forty percent of CDCR prisoners carry the hepatitis-C virus; a significant number are infected with HIV. As these prisoners spread their diseases inside prison, both the human and medical treatment costs will grow exponentially. Further, CDCR projects that by 2017, elderly prisoners will require nearly 6,000 beds for long-term care plus another 4,300 beds will be needed for the severely mentally ill, at an annual cost of billions of dollars.

Regardless, state Representative Todd Spitzer, a Republican, led his party’s charge to scuttle any early release plan. “This budget plan [with the early release of 22,000 prisoners] is a forfeiture of AB 900 principles, which was supposed to change how we treat criminality in California,” he said. Republican political consultant Ray McNally, whose clients include the CCPOA, opined that if the prison population reduction proposals actually go through, “Schwarzenegger’s political career will be all but over.”

On December 1, 2008, Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a financial emergency and called the legislature into another special session to deal with the budget crisis. Previously, on July 31, 2008, Schwarzenegger had issued an executive order that temporarily reduced the pay for 200,000 state workers to minimum wage as a cost-cutting measure. He also imposed a hiring freeze, halted overtime, and fired thousands of part-time state employees.

It is uncertain how California’s budget will be balanced given the financial strain of its overburdened prison system, an anticipated federal takeover of the state’s prisons, and a lack of political will among state lawmakers to realistically address the problem.

Sources: Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Reuters,

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