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Misplaced priorities: California's spending on prisons vs. higher education

A March 1st SF Chronicle article highlighted recent comments made in Washington D.C. by retiring SF State President Robert Corrigan about California's excessive prison spending and annual cuts to higher education.  He noted that, "California is spending nearly as much money on prisons ($8.7 billion, or 9.45 percent of its budget), as it does on all of higher education ($9.3 billion, or 10.1 percent of its budget)".   

Looking at just the UC's and CSU's, the state spends less than half ($4.6 billion) as what it spends on adult and juvenile state prisons.

As many analysts have shown (here, here, here, here, and here, for example) this is not a new trend in California but rather the result of 30-years of policy choices that have pitted corrections spending against long-term investments in K-12 and higher education.    A recent Legislative Analysts Office report noted that the state spent $179,000 in 2011-12 per incarcerated youth in the state's DJF facilities.  Compare that to the approximately $7,500 per year that California spends per youth for K-12 education.

The Chronicle article also notes, "Corrigan said in the first Jerry Brown administration, California had 44,000 people in prison. Today it has 44,000 prison guards. 'It costs seven times as much to put someone in prison as to educate them to keep them out of prison,' Corrigan said. Among African Americans age 18 to 30, more are in prison, on parole or in some part of the criminal justice system than are in college."

This spending crisis has created unlikely allies, the Chronicle notes, "It is a situation that has joined the likes of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, who came together to argue that prison spending bleeds taxpayers, damages the economy and does little to improve public safety."

This highlights the Governor's decision to currently grant a reprieve from the $125,000 per incarcerated youth "budget triggers" to California's counties.  These budget triggers would have required the counties to pay for 60% of the true cost to confine a youth offender at the state's youth correctional system.  

Ignoring these budget triggers by refusing to collect the $125,000 per DJF youth from counties goes directly against the will of the California Legislature, and would allow some counties to maintain their status quo of an overly high dependence on a broken state juvenile justice system.  In a year where K-12 schools, universities, and libraries are facing unprecedented across the board budget cuts, the effort to protect unsustainable prison spending represents irresponsible budget policy. If exceptions are made on the budget trigger for DJF, then exceptions should also be made for our schools, mental health providers, and child-care providers.

Keywords: Brian Heller de Leon, California, education, fiscal policy, prisons

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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