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New report highlights California's "hidden" prison costs

A new report out from the Vera institute conducts a state-by-state analysis of ballooning corrections budgets, far greater than previously reported. Overall, states' corrections budgets have quadrupled over the last 20 years while funding for education and preventative services has either stagnated or been cut dramatically.

When additional corrections costs are considered such as retirement health care for employees, pensions, prisoner health care, and current employee benefits, taxpayers are paying 13.9% higher on average than what is reflected in states' corrections budgets.   The study of 40 states showed that in fiscal year 2010:

"The total price to taxpayers was $38.8 billion, $5.4 billion more than the $33.4 billion reflected in corrections budgets alone."

The institute found that California's corrections costs are actually 12.2% higher than what is reflected in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) budget.  California taxpayers are shouldering an additional $969.7 million in prison-related costs outside the department's budget.   This figure is a conservative estimate, as it does not account for the growing costs of inmate hospital care.

Why should California's taxpayers care about the state's correctional costs?

Some California counties employ incarceration policies that rely more heavily on community-based interventions with adults and juveniles that result in far fewer commitments to state correctional facilities.  For example, an August 2011 CJCJ report found that San Francisco accounts for only 0.9% of the state's imprisonments despite making up 2.2% of the state's overall population. 

The study also found that community-based interventions and a more sparing use of state incarceration led to a reduction in serious and violence crime rate that fell faster than the state average between 1990 and 2010.   San Francisco's serious and violent crime rate fell by 63% compared to the rest of California's decline of 58%.

Even though counties, such as San Francisco, have policies that are more self-reliant, it is the taxpayers of these counties that are paying for the state-dependant practices of counties.

As both the formal and "informal" costs in California's corrections budget continue to spiral out of control, counties should follow the example of self-reliant counties.  Community-based interventions promote long-term public safety and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year.  Governor Brown's adult and juvenile justice realignment proposals are a good first step at reining in costs in returning the state to cost-effective policies and practices, while promoting long-term public safety.

Keywords: Brian Heller de Leon, prisons

Posted in Blog, Justice by Geography

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