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California: Harsh Sentencing Laws and Health Care Costs Strain Corrections Budget

In May 2010, responding to a legislative request for information related to the impact of correctional operations on California’s budget, State Auditor Elaine Howle submitted a report subtitled “Inmates Sentenced Under the Three Strikes Law and a Small Number of Inmates Receiving Specialty Health Care Represent Significant Costs.”

The report came to three primary conclusions, the first two of which were stated in the subtitle. The report’s third main conclusion was that the state spends a significant amount on overtime for prison staff to guard and transport sick prisoners, in large part because it has failed to effectively plan ahead for such costs.

With perhaps the harshest “three strikes” law in the nation, California enhances the sentences of repeat offenders with “violent” or “serious” priors regardless of whether their current offense is violent or serious (so long as it is a felony). So-called second strikers have their sentences doubled, while third strikers face a minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

The State Auditor found that as of April 2009, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) held more than 43,500 prisoners sentenced under the state’s three strikes law, representing 25 percent of the CDCR’s total population – a percentage that has remained roughly constant since 2001. The State Auditor reported that second and third strike prisoners were sentenced, on average, to an additional nine years due to the three strikes law, and that, because of their limited ability to earn credits toward early release compared with non-strike prisoners, the actual number of additional years of incarceration was likely much higher.

The State Auditor assumed that a third striker sentenced to 25 years to life would be released in 25 years. If his or her sentence would otherwise have been only, say, two years, that would translate into 23 years of additional time under the three strikes law.
However, no one sentenced to life under the three strikes law, which was enacted in 1994, has yet become eligible for parole. Given the parole board’s present reluctance to find any life-term prisoner – even a first-time offender – suitable for parole release, the State Auditor’s assumption that a third striker would be paroled after serving “only” 25 years is perhaps overly optimistic.

The State Auditor estimated that, in total, second and third strike prisoners were sentenced to an additional 389,000 years of incarceration due to the requirements of California’s three strikes law, and that those additional years represented $19.2 billion in additional costs to the state. To arrive at that figure, the State Auditor used the average annual cost of incarceration for fiscal year 2007-08, which was calculated in a previous report to be $49,300 per prisoner.

The State Auditor considered four categories of prisoners under the state’s three strikes law: (1) those whose current convictions were not strikes; (2) those convicted of committing multiple strikes on the same day; (3) those with juvenile offenses regarded as strikes; and (4) those not falling into the other three categories. Of those four categories, the largest portion of additional years of incarceration resulting from sentencing under the three strikes law was associated with those who committed multiple strikes on the same day: $9.2 billion for 13,397 strikers (31% of the striker population).

The State Auditor found that 23,099 strikers (53% of the striker population) had current convictions that were not strikes (i.e., not “serious” or “violent” felonies as defined in the Penal Code), which translated into $7.5 billion in additional costs (39% of the $19.2 billion estimated total). Of that amount, $2.7 billion was associated with 19,045 second strikers and $4.8 billion with 4,054 third strikers.

While the number of second strikers far exceeds the number of third strikers (by a ratio of more than three to one), third strikers were sentenced to many more additional years than second strikers and thus account for higher costs.

The State Auditor also found that roughly one-fourth of the $2.1 billion spent on medical care for prisoners in fiscal year 2007-08 was related to specialty health care services provided by contractors. The bulk of those expenses (55%) was for inpatient acute medical and surgical care.

Most specialty health care costs were associated with a relatively small population of prisoners. Less than one percent of CDCR prisoners accounted for 39% of the prison system’s specialty health care expenses incurred in 2007-08. The State Auditor further determined that the average cost of such care generally increased with the age of the prisoner, since elderly prisoners often have more medical problems and thus are more expensive to incarcerate. [See: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.1]. Moreover, since prisoners serving second and third strike sentences tend to be older than non-strikers, the average specialty health care cost for strikers was 13% higher than for non-strike prisoners.

Sources: California State Auditor Report 2009-107.2, San Francisco Chronicle

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