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California’s budget demonstrates a commitment to correctional spending despite continued funding cuts to other important social services. According to California Common Sense, since 1980 “…the number of incarcerated felons in state prisons has increased more than eightfold despite relatively stable crime rates.” Incarcerations and related costs have been driven up in part by the unnecessary incarceration of low-risk, non-violent offenders due to the Three Strikes law and similar sentence enhancing policies. 

Meanwhile, California’s public colleges and universities have suffered severe cuts to capacity. For example, the California State University’s (CSU) faculty-to-student ratio has gone from 21:1 to 32:1, a 33% decline, despite the state’s population having grown 57% over the same period. 

Notwithstanding the state’s ongoing budget crisis, correctional spending has continued to increase. In light of this, as well as Supreme Court mandates to reduce prison overcrowding and improve conditions, Governor Brown has called for Realignment–shifting responsibility for low-level offenders to counties and decreasing state prison incarceration rates. It is clear that realignment efforts have been quite successful thus far in decreasing California’s prison population. The first nine months of realignment have seen a 39% reduction in new prison admissions and a decrease in inmate population of 26,480.

From a fiscal standpoint, Realignment also provides considerable savings to the state: $1.1 billion in the 2012 – 2013 budget year alone. Given such substantial savings – as well as the need to shore up an underfunded higher education system – it seems wise to ask whether investing in education can potentially serve as a means to promote long-term safety. 

One source of solid data to justify direction of public funds saved due to Realignment toward higher education (and perhaps, education in general) is the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). In a brief published earlier this year, JPI detailed a strong correlation between increased educational attainment and decreased violent crime in Washington, DC. Particularly salient is JPI’s finding on the national level, that, “…of the 10 states that saw the biggest increases in higher education expenditure, eight saw violent crime rates decline and five saw violent crime decline more than the national average.” 

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) has previously discussed both the need to fund higher education as well as its proven positive effect on public safety. While California’s budget woes have necessitated drastic changes to the state’s corrections system that some stakeholders find challenging, these changes also present unique opportunities. Realignment not only enables counties to manage offenders within their own communities, potentially fostering rehabilitative rather than punitive measures, it also allows for a possible long-term shift in values for the state’s policy makers. 

Essential to the reinvention of California’s corrections system as both more efficient and effective is the explicit recognition of higher education as an often overlooked but powerful deterrent to crime that should be funded accordingly. 

~ S. Patrick WynneCJCJ Communications and Policy