Run Away Prison Costs Hurting Our State
August 16, 2010
NOTE: John Laird and Sam Blakeslee are both candidates for the 15th State Senate District. CalCoastNews asked Laird and Blakeslee to give their opinions on the prison system in California. In a previous set of opinions, the two candidates gave their view on economic issues facing our community.
OPINION By Sam Blakeslee, Ph.D.
When the recession hit our nation and state revenues collapsed, Sacramento leaders were confronted with a series of dire budget scenarios. In 2009, the Legislature passed the largest tax increase in the nation, hiking taxes by $11 billion. And yet this historic tax increase still was not enough to bring the state’s budget into balance. I voted against that tax increase because I believed spending and budget reform was needed.
Following years of unsustainable overspending and a complete failure to save for the tough times, the Legislature was confronted with the challenge of finding billions in cuts. Some of these cuts and reforms were obvious – for instance the elimination of wasteful boards and commissions where political appointees could earn six-figure salaries for only nominal work. But some of the cuts and reforms require political will. |
Corrections spending totals 10 percent of the budget and is an area that has proven almost intractable to systematic reform. While other areas of the budget are being scaled back, we continue to see troubling examples of wasteful overspending in our budget.
Some argue that the answer is to early release prisoners. Last year, there was a proposal to free 40,000 dangerous criminals, including those convicted of such crimes as human trafficking, violent child abuse and stalking. I joined with law enforcement in strong opposition to these efforts. Rather than jeopardizing public safety, I believe the answer is reform.
There are tremendous waste and inefficiencies in the correctional system. Two examples are bloated bureaucracy and prisoner health care costs.
The last decade has also seen a sharp rise in costly Corrections bureaucracy. Between 200 and 2009, Corrections added nearly three thousand administrative positions – a 77 percent increase. During the years of 2005 and 2008, prison administration costs jumped by 105 percent. This is despite the fact that the number of in-state offenders actually decreased by 5 percent since 1999.
Substantial savings can be achieved by cutting unnecessary bureaucracy, eliminating redundant facilities and staff at the Division of Juvenile Justice, parole reform, and reducing medical costs. We should also be taking immediate steps to address overcrowding by beginning the prison construction already authorized and funded under AB 900, legislation we passed in 2007.
Additionally, California currently spends $17,000 per inmate on health care, more than any other state, and three times what the federal government spends. These exorbitant costs are due in large to intervention by the federal courts imposing outrageous increases in per inmate spending on health and medical care. These mandates have produced a highly inefficient system for delivering medical care.
Prison health care costs have more than tripled since 1997. According to a 2010 study, California spends in excess of $2.4 billion annually just on healthcare mandates for inmates. In comparison, Texas spends $550 million annually on inmate health care, roughly one-third of what California spends on a per inmate basis.
Texas achieved these lowered costs by partnering with area universities. Under the Texas model, the responsibility for health care delivery is transferred to the universities. The correctional department monitors the program to ensure a mandated level of care is provided. Since the university partnership was implemented, the cost per inmate per day has never exceeded $10. In comparison California spends more than $40 per inmate per day.
If California were to only reduce per inmate health care spending down to the federal average, we could save nearly $2 billion. This savings alone could more than fully restore education cuts made to the art and music programs, High School Exit exam instructional support programs, Class Size Reduction programs, children’s oral health assessments and school safety programs.
Sam Blakeslee was elected to the Assembly in 2004. The Legislature’s only scientist, Blakeslee created E3, the Republican Task Force on Energy, Environment and Economy, a group dedicated to bipartisan innovation and problem solving. His legislative efforts have principally focused on government reform, clean and renewable energy, agriculture and open space, and job creation. During his tenure in the Assembly, Blakeslee has earned consistent A ratings from the California Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and been praised for his environmental leadership by the Sierra Club and California League of Conservation Voters in their annual scorecards.