When Jerry Brown’s first governorship began in 1975, California had about 20,000 men and women behind bars in its prison system, but that number would increase more than eight-fold.
As crime rates rose to record levels in the 1970s, Brown, the Legislature and voters responded with laws creating new crimes and/or increasing prison terms for old offenses. Those laws, more that were added in the 1980s and 1990s and more unforgiving attitudes by prosecutors and judges, triggered a flood of new prison inmates.
Democrat Brown and his Republican successors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, undertook a massive prison construction program that eventually added 23 new human warehouses.
By 1990, the state’s prison population had quintupled to 100,000 and by the time Brown returned to the governorship in 2011, it had reached 162,000, just slightly below its peak.
Since then, however, it has declined sharply to a current 129,000, thanks to federal court orders attacking prison overcrowding, more lenient attitudes on parole and probation, diversion of some low-level felons into county jails, and two ballot measures – one sponsored by Brown himself – that reduced penalties.
Some law enforcement authorities contend that California’s penal pendulum has swung too far, and that having fewer miscreants locked up and more on the streets is sparking a new surge of crime.
Voters could weigh in on the issue under a proposed ballot measure that would restore harsher penalties for some crimes, even as the Legislature considers bills to lighten sentences even more.
One might expect that with prison populations having dropped by about 25 percent, costs would also have decreased.
Not so. In fact, they have continued to increase, and with fewer felons behind bars, the per-inmate cost has skyrocketed to about $75,000 a year, roughly the price of a Stanford University education and more than twice the national average.
Brown’s budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year pegs state prison and parole costs at $12 billion. But that’s not the total cost because one of the steps to reduce overcrowding was to shift more felons into county jails and probation programs, with money – $2 billion currently – to pay for them.
That $14 billion is only slightly less than what taxpayers spend through the state budget on higher education. But why, one might wonder, did costs escalate as the number of inmates declined?
The biggest reason is that the system is still housing more inmates than its designed capacity and, therefore, no prisons have been closed. Fundamental operating costs, including the number of prison guards and their ever-increasing salaries and fringe benefits, especially pensions, are unaffected.
Another big factor is that – also thanks to federal court orders – prison health care costs have exploded to $20,000 per inmate. That’s by far the highest in the nation, nearly four times the national average, and also roughly twice the average cost of health care for Californians not behind bars.
The future is cloudy. Under the more lenient laws and policies in effect now, inmate populations may decline slowly, perhaps to the point at which some prisons could be shuttered.
However, prison unions and the communities that see their prisons as economic boons will resist closures. And if the pending ballot measure on sentencing passes, the inmate decline could be stopped.
As the last four decades have shown, what we euphemistically call “criminal justice” is ultimately just another political issue that, like others, is subject to the whims of voters and politicians.
Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters. Reach him at email@example.com.