Dynamist Blog

Prison Reform as Budget Reform

Though anything but plush, California's prisons are scandalously expensive, thanks largely to the bipartisan clout of the prison guards' union. The SacBee's Dan Walters reports:

It is, by a very wide margin, the costliest prison system among the largest states, with a per-inmate cost that prison officials tag at around $45,000 a year, roughly what it costs to send a youngster to one of the more prestigious private universities.

The average among the nation's 10 most populous states, according to one recent calculation, is $27,237 per year per inmate, including states with substantially higher incarceration rates, such as Texas. Therefore, prisons consume a much-higher portion of California's general fund budget than those of other states — more than 10 percent.

The other nine states' prison costs range from less than 4 percent of their general fund budgets (Florida) to 8.2 percent (Michigan) with an average of about 6 percent. Or to put it another way, were California spending an average amount on its felons, it would be spending about $4 billion less each year.

Given the state's financial collapse, Walters concludes that Schwarzenegger is right to endorse privatization: "If it's time to get serious about cutting our prison costs, private management could scarcely be worse than what we have now."

Mark Kleiman is always good for some creative ideas on producing better, cheaper criminal justice. And he's hardly some kind of Republican tool.

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