Prison unions punish California taxpayers

By Steven Greenhut | If you ever wondered what’s wrong with California’s state government, then mull over this simple example: While California cuts its prison population and staff, it’s increasing the amount of money it spends to operate its massive prison system.

Steven GreenhutIn the private sector, a decline in the number of “customers” and workers would mean lower overhead. But in state government – or, at least, this state government – the opposite is true. The higher costs are driven by escalating pay and benefit packages negotiated by unions that represent prison guards and other staff. It’s an example of how powerful public-sector unions keep the state from getting spending under control, even when the need for such spending plummets.

That example comes from a new report by the Vera Institute for Justice. “(D)espite a decline in both its prison population and the number of prison staff, California’s prison spending rose $560 million between 2010 and 2015, primarily because salary, pension and other employee and retiree benefits continued to increase, also a result of union-negotiated increases,” explained the New York-based think tank that promotes criminal-justice reform.

California is unusual from a national perspective, per the report. Thirteen states have reduced prison populations since 2010, but they’ve also cut their prison spending by $1.6 billion. Seven states have increased their populations, but have managed to decrease their prison spending, (by $254 million). Fifteen states have increased their prison populations and also increased their total prison spending by a half-billion dollars.

California is in an ignominious group of 10 states that saw declines in the prison population since 2010, but which increased spending by $1.1 billion. Furthermore, California’s spending increase accounts for more than half of that number. California has by far the costliest system of incarceration in the nation at more than $75,000 per inmate per year – more than triple the average cost of the 18 states with the least-costly rates.

Regardless of one’s views on prison-reform issues, it’s clear that California gets far less bang for its buck than other states. The savings could go to other parts of the criminal-justice bureaucracy, or to other programs or, heaven forbid, back to taxpayers. Instead, the money goes to maintain a system that isn’t changing to reflect new realities.

Read the rest of this column on the California Policy Center website . . .

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