Prison Spending in the Age of the Recession

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Those who
love irony will appreciate recent developments in California’s prison system.

A
federal judge refused
to take the state out from under the thumb of a
receiver who wants officials to spend $8 billion to build seven prison health
centers and renovate several others.

The state’s auditor
released a review of last year’s budget that showed revenues increased only 1
percent, the smallest growth since 2001, while government spending grew 8.2
percent.

Though
education spending showed one of the biggest general-fund increases — $1.8
billion — over the 2007-08 budget year, that funding was cut midyear from
levels approved when the spending plan was passed.

Prisons,
however, grew over both the previous year and over projections, showing an $884
million increase over the previous year.

And
that’s not all. In addition to spending from the general fund, lawmakers
approved $7.3 billion in lease-revenue bonds for projects that included
state prison and local jail beds and health-care facilities, the audit report
said.

The
reason, according to the audit: “The increased expenditures in
correctional programs was mainly for inmate medical services, in order to
comply with recent court orders and implementation of new parole programs to
reduce recidivism.”

The
prison general-fund budget grew by the $396 million over the budgeted amount,
nearly identical to the amount schools were cut. That means liberals might well
have a point when they claim government gladly will spend money to incarcerate
people but not to educate them.

Didn’t
Rand Corp. warn long ago that the
three strikes law would cost the state
$4.5 billion to $6.5 billion a year?
We’re at $10 billion and counting.

And while
the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office didn’t come up with a price tag in
its 2005
report,
it did warn that the increased numbers of prisoners as a result of
the three-strikes law, as well as the aging prison population in general, would
mean increased operating and building costs for the California corrections
system.

Except in
this case, California
is anything but glad about spending the money.

Attorney
General Jerry Brown and Schwarzenegger Administration officials were in court
again Tuesday, trying to convince U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to end
the court’s involvement in prison health care.

Henderson
refused, saying he wasn’t convinced the state would continue the improvements
if the receiver were removed.

The state
plans to appeal.

“California is spending
almost $14,000 per inmate for health care per year, far more than any
other state,” Brown told The Los Angeles Times. “It is time for a
dose of fiscal common-sense.”

Henderson did at least leave
wiggle room on the pricey construction plan, according
to The Sacramento Bee,
saying that he hadn’t ordered construction, but only
renovations and plans for construction. And a three-judge panel that includes Henderson tentatively has
ordered the state to
release about a third of its prisoners
, and fewer prisoners obviously would
mean less health-care needs.

Clearly,
there’s no room for continued spending growth anywhere in California’s budget,
with the state already facing a new $8 billion budget gap in the bloody
compromise struck just last month.

Inflexible
budget, meet inflexible judge. And inflexible voters who refused a little more
than four years ago to ease up on three strikes. The LAO estimates that had
Proposition 66 passed, it would have saved the state hundreds of millions
annually.

Schwarzenegger
opposed that change,
saying it would put 26,000 dangerous criminals back on the streets.

In the
final irony in this saga, that’s about how many people California
would have to release a yea
r if the judges order cuts to the prison
population.

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