Fewer State Prisoners, Higher Cost Per Inmate

California’s prisons, once bulging at the seams, have slimmed down considerably since counties took responsibility for housing and supervising certain low-level offenders as part of a state-to-county “realignment” that began in October 2011. The state’s 33 prisons currently house about 119,600 inmates — 17.2 percent below the September 30, 2011 (pre-realignment) level of 144,456. In fact, the prison population is now roughly the same size as in 1994-95, when it ranged from about 115,000 to just over 121,000.

Yet, even as the number of prisoners has dropped since realignment, the cost per inmate – adjusted for inflation – has continued to climb and is substantially higher than in the mid-1990s, as we show in our recent report on state corrections spending. California is expected to spend about $60,000 for each inmate in 2013-14 — 82.3 percent higher than in 1994-95, when the state spent slightly less than $33,000 per inmate, after adjusting for inflation. In stark contrast, California’s spending per K-12 student has risen by just 17.9 percent during the same period — from an inflation-adjusted $6,971 in 1994-95 to a projected $8,219 in 2013-14. In other words, spending per prisoner in California has increased nearly five times faster than spending per K-12 student over the past two decades.

Our report identifies a number of factors that have contributed to this substantial increase in spending per inmate. Staffing levels – including correctional officers and other prison-related employees — are significantly higher today than in the mid-1990s, even though the number of inmates is about the same. Salary increases have also contributed to the rising cost per inmate, as has the dramatic growth in health care spending — an increase driven by various court orders and settlements. California is expected to spend $2 billion on medical, dental, and psychiatric services for inmates in 2013-14, more than triple the $590 million the state spent on those same services in 1994-95, after adjusting for inflation. In addition, the difficulty of reducing fixed costs — such as utilities, leases, and support staff — over a relatively short period likely has contributed to rising spending per inmate since realignment took effect, as our report explains.

This rising cost per inmate is troubling and deserves greater scrutiny by state policymakers, since every dollar directed to the prison system leaves one less dollar to spend on other public systems and services. Certainly, increases in corrections spending may be warranted in some cases, such as to expand and improve rehabilitation services. In other cases, higher spending may be unavoidable, particularly for inmate health care, which remains under the direct management of a court-appointed federal Receiver. On balance, however, policymakers do have choices about how much funding is allocated to the state corrections budget and how those dollars are spent. Reducing — or at least holding the line on — corrections spending over time would free up scarce state dollars that could be redirected to education, health care, transportation, and other essential state priorities in the years ahead.

— Scott Graves