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Prison Spending in the Age of the Recession

by Indy, published

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 year if the judges order cuts to the prison population.

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