Corrections and the Governor’s Proposed 2015-16 Budget: Spending Maintained Even as Prison Population Declines

At an Assembly Budget Subcommittee No. 5 on Public Safety hearing last week, Secretary Jeffrey Beard of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation acknowledged that state corrections spending remains high, due in large part to high staffing ratios and ongoing facility operations costs. He cautioned that while large corrections savings might be realized upon the closure of a prison, it will be difficult for the state to close a prison without continued sentencing changes.

The Governor’s budget proposal for 2015-16 includes just over $10 billion in General Fund spending on state corrections, accounting for 9 percent of total General Fund expenditures. This would be an increase from the 2014-15 spending level, despite an expected reduction in the number of people incarcerated by the state.

As of the end of last year, California incarcerated about 134,300 people in state prisons and other facilities, including fire camps, private prisons, and state hospitals. Of these, about 115,000 people were housed in state prisons designed for 82,700, putting the number of incarcerated individuals at 139 percent of prison capacity.

The state is under a federal court order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by February 28, 2016. Due to continued efforts to comply with the federal court order and the passage of Proposition 47 last year, the Governor’s 2015-16 budget proposal assumes that the number of people incarcerated by the state — in state prisons and other facilities — will decline to an average daily population of about 133,100 people in 2015-16. But this projection is conservative; the population reduction as a result of Proposition 47 is likely to be greater.

As a result of Proposition 47, the actual number of people incarcerated by the state dropped to just under 131,000 as of midnight on March 4, 2015. Of these, about 112,200 were housed in state prisons — a level equal to 135.8 percent of prison capacity, below the court-ordered population cap. While this population reduction is significant and yearly new admissions could decline by 4,000 due to Proposition 47, Secretary Beard noted that admissions to prison are strongly influenced by local prosecutorial charging practices, which in the coming years could change in ways that subvert the purpose of Proposition 47.

Even if the state can maintain its new population reduction levels, California’s prisons will remain overcrowded. Operating at 137.5 percent capacity is still roughly 31,000 more people than the state prisons were designed for, and that’s not including approximately 15,000 additional people held in other facilities both in and outside of California.

In his 2015 inaugural address, Governor Brown questioned the use of lengthy sentences and endorsed finding “less expensive, more compassionate, and more effective ways to deal with crime.” Certainly, sentencing enhancement laws passed over the last 30 years — such as “Three Strikes and You’re Out” and “Use a Gun and You’re Done”— have extended prison sentences and contributed to overcrowding without demonstrating corresponding public safety benefits. National research and California’s recent experience with criminal justice realignment suggests that these laws could be revisited and modified to safely reduce the state’s reliance — and thereby state spending — on incarceration.

— Selena Teji