Shrinking Pains

Shrinking Pains

April 21, 2012 | Linh Vuong

California’s prestigious UC system is facing a budget deficit of $234 million. Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News reports that California finds that prison costs aren’t so easy to cut. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is budgeted over $8 billion, which was reduced from the $10 billion allotted in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 budgets.

California’s prestigious UC system is facing a budget deficit of $234 million. Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News reports that California finds that prison costs aren’t so easy to cut. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is budgeted over $8 billion, which was reduced from the $10 billion allotted in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 budgets. The article above reported “hundreds of millions in savings have failed to materialize,” money that the Governor wants to put towards education. While schools are slashing enrollment, considering three-year programs and online courses to make up for the $234 million shortfall, legislators cannot even find ways to reduce the $5 billion spent on prison guard salaries.

The comparison between education and prison spending has been a familiar one for years. To many, this recent period of “shrinking pains” is a unique opportunity to affect prison and parole reform. And so it is: reform is taking place. Senate Bill (SB) X3 18 went into effect in late January, 2010, releasing a number of eligible inmates to Non-Revocable Parole (NRP), essentially, unsupervised parole. Another recent proposal on inmate health care from the federal receiver, J. Clark Kelso, is medical parole. Mr. Kelso claims that a few dozen sick inmates are costing the state some $41 million a year in health care and guard costs. Guards who supervise inmates in private care are a hefty expense. Their 24-hour duties are charged at overtime rates, as this is not part of their regular responsibilities. One sick inmate could incur (and often has) nearly half a million in guard costs.

What is most alarming to this writer is the lack of research involved in these proposals and the speed at which they are being rolled out. The current opportunity to fix the system must not be squandered, but policy must be clearly analyzed and the consequences understood. SB X3 18 became law so quickly that many cities and counties did not understand how to enforce it, and implementation varies from place to place. More importantly, there was no effort by lawmakers to explain to the public and local officials that inmates at low risk of reoffending—those eligible for NRP—do not respond well to the high levels of supervision inherent in prison time and parole services. Low-risk offenders have more positive outcomes when they are given less intensive services[1]. Without due consideration of these facts, the legislation is likely to create new problems. Meanwhile, the medical parole proposal is short-sighted. Lawmakers are so focused on monetary savings that little attention is given to the long-term issues that may arise if inmates become healthy. Currently, the article states, “…parole would be revoked if the inmate’s condition improved,” seemingly pitting health against incarceration. While it is understood that parole is allowed for these prisoners because their health status decreases their danger to society, certain alternatives to incarceration may be more productive in lieu of an automatic return to prison. Medical parole applies to such a small percentage of the prison population that it would be possible to review each parolee’s circumstance, should his or her condition improve. A blanket policy is unnecessary.

The state should consider proposals that were developed under less of a financial strain. For example, NCCD recently examined alternatives to incarceration that have proven effective—options which include electronic monitoring, day reporting centers, work release programs, drug treatment, and drug court. If the state began to sentence low-level offenders to alternatives today, savings could total nearly $3 billion, an amount that would relieve the UC deficit more than 12 times[2].


[1] Andrews, D. A., Bonta, J., & Hoge, R. D. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17, 19-52.

[2] This figure is calculated based on new admissions to prison and average time served based on offense. Offenses only include nonviolent, nonserious offenses. For more information, please call (800) 306-6223.