Bending the Prison Cost Curve

Budgets, as we like to say at the CBP, are not just about dollars and cents. At a fundamental level, budgets express our values and priorities as a state. The choices we make through the state budget process help determine whether California is improving outcomes for families and communities and investing in policies that promote broadly shared prosperity. While California has made some major progress in this regard — the state’s robust implementation of federal health care reform is a prime example — in other ways we’ve fallen short.

One way in which we’ve clearly missed the mark is illustrated by the chart below. Under the Governor’s proposed spending plan for 2014-15, California is expected to spend more than $62,000 on each prison inmate — nearly 90 percent higher than in 1994-95, after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, our state is expected to spend slightly less than $9,200 for each K-12 student in 2014-15 — a level that reflects a marked improvement relative to recent years, but which is up by only 30 percent since 1994-95, after adjusting for inflation. In other words, over the past two decades spending per prisoner in California has increased nearly three times faster than spending per K-12 student.

California can do better. “Bending the prison cost curve” — that is, curtailing the persistent trend of rising state prison spending — is a challenging but necessary undertaking that deserves policymakers’ sustained attention. Making progress toward this goal would free up state dollars that could be redirected from the correctional system to essential state priorities in the years ahead.

— Scott Graves