Prisons Capturing More State Dollars than Colleges

Monday, September 10, 2012

California spending on its prison system has steadily increased over the past 30 years, corresponding to a similar decline in spending on higher education, according to a study by the non-profit organization California Common Sense (CACS).

The result is that California now spends slightly more on its correctional institutions than it does on the state’s three pillars of higher education―the University of California, California State University and community colleges. While a number of news outlets have interpreted this to reflect a conscious decision to favor one over the other—we care more about pampering prisoners than educating our kids—coincidence is not causality, and the CACS report resists the temptation to oversimplify.

Comparing California’s financial commitments to education and incarceration is not an illegitimate way to gain perspective on the state’s social priorities. But even a hard drive full of informative snapshots isn’t necessarily an all-encompassing narrative

Amplifying a mini-study by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office three years ago that noted the trends, CACS statistics show that higher education received 13% less state General Fund support in 2011 than 1980, after adjusting for inflation, while Corrections increased 436%. The result is that more General Fund money is now spent on Corrections.

The General Fund is just one component of funding for both institutions. Federal and private dollars play a big role in education and special funds raised through targeted taxation play a role in both. Schools also now receive a far larger portion of their funding from student tuition and fees, a shift dictated by socio-political forces as well as economic necessity.

While education has experienced little structural change during the period studied, the corrections system has been heavily impacted by legislative and policy changes. Tough crime laws have meant more and longer prison sentences.

The Determinate Sentencing Law in 1977 shifted the emphasis in prison from rehabilitation to punishment, mandating longer sentences and making it harder for prisoners to win early release. During the next 15 years, the Legislature passed more than 1,000 crime bills whose overall effect was to keep more prisoners locked up for longer periods of time. Voters approved the Three-Strikes Bill in 1994 and Marsy’s Law (Victims’ Bill of Rights) in 2008, both of which added to the prison population.    

The CACS report notes that prison guards make more than California State University professors and twice as much as guards in other parts of the country. But it also notes that California went on a spending spree to build more prisons and that the courts have mandated better treatment for prisoners, both adding to costs. The number of California prisoners grew more than eight times faster than the general population during the past 30 years, and the courts determined that crowded conditions and crappy health care amounted to constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment.

Responding to court pressure, the state began a realignment of its corrections system last year that is sending thousands of non-sexual, non-violent felons from prison to local jails. The issue of rehabilitation versus punishment is being revisited, treatment of drug offenses is being reconsidered and local authorities are taking more responsibility for parolees.  

The corrections and educational systems have begun fundamental changes that make it hard to predict whether the trend of the past 30 years will continue. 

–Ken Broder 


To Learn More:

Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California (by Prerna Anand, California Common Sense)

Prison Spending Affecting Higher Education in California: Report (by Stephanie Chuang, NBC)

California Spending More On Prisons Than Colleges, Report Says (by Aaron Sankin, Huffington Post)

Does the State Spend More on Corrections or Higher Education? (California Legislative Analyst) (pdf)

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