California reels in debt. Our reputation with Wall Street is in the toilet. And thanks to an ever-widening $38 billion chasm in the budget, more taxes seem surely in our future. Though Governor Gray Davis’ May budget revision is a bit softer when it comes to slashing education and social programs, one thing remains constant: Nobody wants to go after prisons and their guards.
No politico with any power has the guts to explore the possibility that the Department of Corrections budget—with its 6-percent portion of the general fund—is bloated and could produce many millions in savings without negatively affecting public safety.
The reason the prison budget miraculously has been spared from cuts is as obvious as it is disturbing. Elected officials don’t want to mess with the behemoth California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), an all-powerful union that represents about 20,000 workers at 33 prisons. The CCPOA is the most feared prison-guard union in the nation, stunningly successful at protecting the high salaries of its members, mostly by bestowing huge checks to politicians. For example, last year, Davis received a $251,000 contribution a few weeks after he and the Legislature gave the guards a giant 34-percent raise in the middle of a budget crisis.
Meanwhile, general-fund spending on education has dropped by $1 billion in California since 1985, while corrections spending has increased by $3 billion. What does this say about our state’s priorities? At the very least, Davis should adopt the proposals outlined by the legislative analyst’s office to save millions safely, mostly by discharging nonviolent prisoners one month early (saving $21 million and freeing 1,700 prison beds) and paroling nonviolent offenders with sentences of six months or less (saving $11 million).
Another obvious action would be to reduce the huge numbers of parolees who return to prison on technicalities. In California, a stunning 70 percent of prison admissions (compared with 35 percent nationally) are for minor parole violations, sometimes about such things as missing an interview with a parole officer.
Even more savings could come from canceling the proposed Delano II prison. Though the governor’s May revision does suggest at least postponing the $595 million maximum-security prison, we say this prison should be called off altogether. Once built, Delano II will cost at least $100 million a year in operations costs for at least the first 25 years. That money would come straight out of the general fund.
Other states with budget troubles have found ways to cut corrections costs. In Michigan, the Republican-controlled Legislature abolished mandatory sentences for drug offenders. Even Texas saved money by paroling more people and reducing the number of parolees sent back to prison on non-criminal technical violations.
Governor and legislators, it’s time for a gut check. It’s time to drop all the finger-pointing and stonewalling theatrics and produce a budget that’s real. And it’s time to do so without protecting corrections.