We’re All Getting Older…Including California’s Prison Inmates

A recent report that state spending on health care for state prisoners is nearly $500 million over budget this year helps shed light on one of the darker corners of the state budget: corrections.

Most Californians probably do not realize that the state’s prison costs have soared since the 1980s. In 1987-88, California spent 5 percent of its General Fund dollars on corrections, compared to 10 percent in 2007-08. In other words, “spending on corrections takes up about twice as much of the state budget [as] it did 20 years ago,” according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). This trend is troubling because every dollar the state spends on prisons means one less dollar to spend on education, health and human services, or other programs.

At the same time, the average cost of incarcerating an inmate has more than doubled, rising from $19,500 in 1987-88 to $46,100 in 2007-08. One of the main reasons for this jump, according to the LAO, is the increase in inmate health care costs, which have risen by more than $1.5 billion since 2000, largely in response to a federal court order requiring the state to provide prisoners with a constitutionally acceptable level of care. Moreover, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) projects that the percentage of prisoners who are getting on in years will continue to rise sharply, a trend that would surely continue to drive up the state’s costs for inmate health care. CDCR projects that one-quarter (25.6 percent) of male inmates in California will be age 50 or older in 2018, compared to 13.2 percent in 2007 and just 3.9 percent back in 1988.

The kicker: Essentially all of these inmate health care costs are borne by the state, with little or no federal cost sharing. With the state facing projected multi-billion dollar budget gaps every year for the foreseeable future, it makes you wonder whether it’s time to turn back the clock and reduce, wherever appropriate, the number of aging prisoners for whom the state’s taxpayers are responsible.

— Scott Graves

4 thoughts on “We’re All Getting Older…Including California’s Prison Inmates

  1. I see the statistics, but I would like to know “why.” What is the reason healthcare costs have risen, exactly? And what is meant by “reduce, wherever appropriate, the number of aging prisoners?” What options are there? I would strongly like to explore cutting prison costs before I would support cutting education funding or closing state parks.

    1. Inmate health care costs have increased rapidly for a number of reasons, including that the federal courts have required California to spend substantially more on inmate health care in recent years. In addition, health care in the US is expensive and getting more expensive every year, and California’s state prisons are not immune to this trend. Both the Governor and the LAO have proposed options for reducing the state’s prison population.

  2. Is health cost per inmate rising as dramatically?

    Health costs attributable to prisons would rise, c.p., because both the number incarcerated and term lengths have risen markedly over this period.

    Is it possible to disaggregate costs (both health and population growth) due to voter approved propositions?

    1. Thank you for your question. No, we don’t have that kind of data. Perhaps the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation might be able to help you.

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