Crime & Justice

Prison spending rises, even as inmate population plummets

Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Frank Fuller, age 66, walks down the hall to his cell at California Men's Colony prison on December 20, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images


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California is spending nearly half a billion dollars more on corrections than it did four years ago, even though state prisons house almost 30,000 fewer inmates, according to a study released late Monday by the Public Policy Institute of California. 

Add $1 billion the state will allocate to counties this fiscal year as part of its prison realignment program, and spending on corrections is at an “all time high.”

“The state has had to increase spending on healthcare in prisons,” said PPIC researcher Magnus Lofstrum. “That has contributed to a high level of expenditures.”

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court required California to dramatically reduce overcrowding and improve healthcare inside prisons. The court majority said conditions had fallen “below the standard of decency" to the point of being unconstitutional. 

To decrease overcrowding, California implemented prison realignment — which shifted responsibility for punishing lower level felons to county governments. 

Since then, the prison population has fallen by 27,400 to 133,400, according to the study.

Various federal court cases have California corrections officials in a bind on spending, according to Matt Cate, executive director of the California Association of Counties. Cate formerly served as secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

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

In order to meet federal requirements, California has opened two new prisons in recent years: the Stockton Medical Facility and a medium security facility in California City. 

Other key findings of the study:

“Realignment has succeeded in many respects, and it appears to have moved California corrections in the right direction,” said Lofstrom, who authored the report with PPIC research associate Brandon Martin.

“But the state and counties together must make progress in reducing the stubbornly high rates of recidivism.”