Golden State Blues
Why Can’t California Cut Prison Costs?

One big selling point for the criminal justice movement that has gained momentum in states across the country is that it would save money, freeing up resources for more productive endeavors like infrastructure and education. In California, however, it hasn’t worked that way. Reuters reports:

In 2012, under court order to reduce prison overcrowding, California announced an ambitious criminal justice reform plan that promised not only to meet the court mandate but also to improve criminal sentencing and “save billions of dollars.”

. . . But the promise of savings – a chief goal of prison reform nationwide – has not been realized. Instead, costs have risen.

. . . The biggest driver of higher costs . . . has been personnel. The state budgets for about the same number of positions as it did five years ago, when the state system housed nearly 30,000 more inmates.

Why hasn’t such a dramatic reduction in the prison population led to a reduction in prison personnel? The answer is complicated, but from the story, part of the responsibility appears to lie with prison guards’ unions, which pushed the state to adopt a staffing model that would force the department to keep hiring.

This is another example, as if one was needed, of how public sector unions and their (bipartisan) political allies can work together in what is essentially a conspiracy against the public. It goes like this: Politicians pat themselves on the back for “reforming” the prison system, unions get even more job security and political power, and taxpayers—who were promised that prison reform would cut costs—end up facing a triple hit: higher taxes, reduced quality public services, and (potentially) higher crime.

At Via Meadia, we think the American criminal justice system is both too expensive and often too punitive, and we are open to cautious efforts to reform it, even if they risk a modest increase in the crime rate, which is currently at historic lows. But prison reform without cost savings—or, as in this case, with cost increases—is not nearly as good a bargain. Many voters are likely to share this view. If California’s prison cutbacks fail to reduce costs, other states are less likely to follow. It’s in the interest of reformers, then, to pair sentencing reductions with real concessions from the prison guard unions.

In states like California, winning such concessions will be difficult, given how entrenched the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is, in both parties. But the Supreme Court may be about to make the task much easier.

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