Although the number of adults incarcerated by the state has recently declined, the 2016-17 state budget signed by Governor Brown last month once again fails to reduce the level of General Fund support for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). (Most state funding for public services and systems comes from tax revenues deposited into the General Fund.) In fact, the CDCR’s General Fund budget exceeds $10 billion for the third consecutive year, after adjusting for inflation. As shown in the chart below, nearly all of these dollars support the CDCR’s “state operations,” a category that largely reflects the cost of running state prisons, providing health care and other services to incarcerated adults, and supervising individuals who are released to state parole. Only very small portions of the CDCR’s budget go to local governments (“local assistance”) or fund corrections-related infrastructure (“capital outlay”).
Compared to the 2012-13 fiscal year, annual General Fund support for the CDCR is up by $1.2 billion, after adjusting for inflation. This is despite the fact that the number of adults incarcerated by the state — currently about 128,500 — is nearly 6,800 (5 percent) lower than in mid-2012, a drop that is partly due to California voters’ approval of sentencing reforms in 2014 (Proposition 47). The growth of the CDCR’s budget during this period reflects spending increases that have outpaced inflation, including for prison health care (up by 22 percent); for rehabilitative services (up by 18 percent); and for prison security and operations (up by 12 percent), which includes the cost of salaries and benefits for correctional officers and support services for incarcerated adults, such as meals and clothing.
Analysis of recent spending trends does reveal a small piece of good news: The CDCR’s slice of the state budget “pie” has gotten a bit smaller in recent years. This is because the growth of General Fund spending overall has outpaced the increase in state support for the CDCR. In 2012-13, the CDCR accounted for 8.9 percent of General Fund spending. In 2016-17, the fiscal year that began on July 1, this figure is down to 8.5 percent. However, the CDCR’s current share remains well above the 7.5 percent level that the Governor’s analysts projected back in 2012, shortly after California implemented a major policy “realignment” that shifted key criminal justice responsibilities to the counties and led to a huge drop in the state prison population. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the CDCR’s share of the General Fund in 2016-17 is more than twice as high as its share in 1980-81 (2.9 percent).
Clearly, California has much more work to do in order to bend the prison cost curve. But tinkering around the edges of the state’s criminal justice policies won’t be enough to get the job done. To significantly decrease corrections spending, the state would need to reduce incarceration to a level that would allow one or more state prisons to be closed. Achieving this goal would require state policymakers and/or the voters to further reform the state’s sentencing laws and provide new opportunities for people to earn early release from prison, consistent with public safety.
California’s corrections infrastructure has been built up over several decades. Downsizing it will require tough choices, strong leadership, and careful planning. A change of this magnitude and complexity won’t happen overnight, but it can be done, and the payoff would be significant. Shrinking the size of the corrections footprint on the state budget would free up revenues that could then be redirected to public services and systems that can both help all Californians access economic opportunity and promote broadly shared prosperity.
— Scott Graves