January 24, 2003

Cut Prison Budgets, Not Education


By: Vincent Schiraldi and
Rose Braz

Last week, in an effort to address California’s staggering $35 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Gray Davis proposed, among other cuts, a reduction in California’s education budget by $5.4 billion. In the same breath, Davis announced his intention to increase the state’s corrections budget to $5.3 billion.

The move prompted the California Teachers Association’s John Hein to state, “I don’t know what happened to the governor who said that education was his first, second and third priorities. Maybe now he is the governor who believes corrections is his first, second and third priorities.”

Rather than balancing the budget by slashing education or health care, when state policy makers look through every line item to shave costs, prisons should be included. With crippling budget deficits, crime rates that have fallen over the last decade and mounting public support for a more balanced approach to criminal justice, even some very conservative states are finding ways to cut corrections costs. For example:

— In 2000, Louisiana, the state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, eliminated mandatory sentences for certain offenses and returned sentencing discretion to judges.

— The Republican-controlled legislature in Michigan recently abolished mandatory sentences for drug offenders.

— Tough-on-crime Texas reduced its prison population by 8,000 by paroling more people and reducing the number of parolees returned to prison for non-criminal, technical violations of parole.

By contrast, California leads the nation in the number of technical parole violators it returns to prison — over 60,000, at a cost of more than $1 billion annually. Clearly, California and other states’ policy makers could learn from these examples: The best way to reduce prison spending is to safely reduce the number of people in prison.

The number of inmates in California’s prisons has grown eightfold since 1980. Between 1980 and 2000, about 39,000 African American men were added to California’s prisons, as African American male enrollment in higher education actually declined by about 3,800. General fund spending on colleges in California dropped by $1 billion since 1985, while corrections spending increased by $3 billion.

Americans — and Californians in particular — have said repeatedly that they are ready for change. In December 2001, four times as many Californians surveyed in a Field Poll reported that they preferred to reduce the state’s prison budget rather than cut higher education.

According to a poll released in February by Hart Research Associates, two-thirds of Americans support sentencing nonviolent offenders to probation instead of imprisonment, and a substantial majority of the public supports eliminating mandatory sentencing laws and returning sentencing discretion to judges.

Similarly, separate polls by Parade Magazine and ABC News released last February and March, respectively, found that approximately 80 percent of Americans favored sentencing nonviolent offenders to alternatives to incarceration such as probation and drug treatment rather than prison.

Perhaps the best barometer of public opinion in California came in 2000, when 62 percent of voters approved Proposition 36, an initiative that has since diverted more than 30,000 drug offenders from prison into treatment. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the initiative will save state taxpayers $1.5 billion over the next five years.

California officials now face the largest fiscal crisis of their political lives. Instead of squandering money on more and more prisons, they should use the opportunity to cut corrections spending. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, simply by eliminating post-release supervision for nonviolent, non-serious, non-drug sale offenders, with no prior record of violent or serious offenses, California could save an estimated $114 million a year. Making county jail, as opposed to state prison, the most severe punishment for shoplifting would save about $34 million annually.

The governor could also take construction of a new prison in Delano off the table. The Delano prison will cost taxpayers $595 million in construction and interest alone, plus another $100 million annually to run. Despite the fact that the California Department of Corrections’ most recent population projections forecast 23,553 fewer prisoners than were anticipated when the Delano prison was authorized, Davis has consistently refused to scrap the unnecessary prison.

These proposals will reduce prison populations in a way that saves money, assures public safety, and returns some balance to California’s penal policies. If Texas can create a more balanced and cost-effective approach to public safety, so can trend-setting California.

Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute (www.justicepolicy.org) in Washington, D.C. Braz directs Critical Resistance (www.criticalresistance.org) in Oakland, Calif. Both organizations focus on reducing society’s reliance on incarceration as a solution to social problems.

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