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California Corrections Spending At an All Time High Despite Dramatic Decrease in Prison Population

by Joe Watson

Compelled by court-ordered reductions in its prison population and voter initiatives reducing penalties for drug and property offenses, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) incarcerates almost 30,000 fewer people in state prisons today than it did five years ago. Yet, Californians are spending nearly $500 million more annually than they did then, and the state’s costs of mass incarceration are, in fact, at an all-time high, according to a nonpartisan think tank.

Apparently, it costs significantly more to fulfill California’s constitutional obligations to prisoners. “The state has had to increase spending on healthcare in prisons,” said researcher Magnus Lofstrum of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).  “That has contributed to a high level of expenditures.”

And Matt Cate, a former secretary of the CDCR, believes the costs will continue to rise until California’s prison population falls even more drastically.

“The state’s not able to manage the population in an efficient way,” Cate said.  “The only way to save money in prisons is to close prisons, and we’re opening prisons.”

According to a PPIC report published in September 2015, California’s prison population has fallen by 27,400 people since 2011, the year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling ordering CDCR to reduce the population from a jaw-dropping 190% of its capacity to 137.5%.  The court also required CDCR to improve prisoner healthcare and said that conditions inside state prisons had fallen “below the standard of decency.”

To satisfy the court’s orders, California state assembly approved a plan known as “realignment” to transfer tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders from prisons to county jails around the state struggled to meet the court’s benchmark until after voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014, reducing penalties for possessing usable amounts of most illicit drugs and increasing threshold dollar amounts at which property crimes become felonies.

After Prop 47 spurred the release of nearly 8,000 state prisoners in January 2015, the CDCR population finally fell in line with the court’s mandate.  However, with $1 billion going to counties, in fiscal year 2015 alone, to fund realignment, “the state is spending an all-time high on corrections,” according to the PPIC report.

To help provide constitutional levels of medical and mental health care, CDCR’s healthcare budget was raised, including remodels of medical facilities at prisons statewide-costing more than $2 billion-and the construction of the California Health Care Facility at a CDCR complex in Stockton.

And, to Cate’s point-the former secretary of CDCR the state opened a new medium-security prison in California City, while allocating another $2.2billion for new county jail construction.  Why additional bed space is needed is unclear, since rates of both violent and property crimes have dropped to historic lows.

Recidivism rates, however have remained the same in California as they were before realignment, the PPIC reported. “One of realignment’s goals was to reduce recidivism among lower-level offenders,” the PPIC report said, while decreasing returns to prison, “a major cause of overcrowding.”  So far, according to the PPIC, that has not happened.

 “Realignment has succeeded in many respects, and it appears to have moved California corrections in the right direction,” said Lofstrum, who co-wrote the PPIC report.  “But the state and counties together must make progress in reducing the stubbornly high rates of recidivism.” If recidivism is reduced, and the state regains control of the CDCR healthcare system from the federal government, and the state closes at least one prison, the PPIC has recommended, then-just maybe-California’s taxpayers will see less of their money spent on mass incarceration.

Sources: “Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far,” Public Policy Institute of California, September 2015,;