Commentary

California Prison Overcrowding and Costs, Part II

In my last post, I discussed the recent federal judges’ decision to force the State of California to come up with a plan to release some 43,000 prisoners to relieve overcrowding and poor conditions at the state’s correctional facilities. I also touched on the costs of housing prisoners in the state, and how the prison guards’ union contributes to these inflated costs. On Thursday, an Orange County Register editorial expanded upon these issues:

What’s going on with California prisons is a crime. We don’t like federal courts dictating to local governments. But California officials have invited federal intervention for years by stuffing prison cells to nearly twice their capacity and ignoring the resultant deadly consequences, all the while padding paychecks of the increasingly politically powerful prison guards union.

A federal three-judge panel this week ordered release of 43,000 prisoners, a fourth of the inmate population, and gave state officials 45 days to come up with a plan or face federal takeover of the prisons. The action is necessary, the panel scolded, “to prevent death and harm.” In typically delaying fashion, the state is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

[. . .]

Sacramento almost never responds in a timely fashion to any crisis, whether it’s the budget or prison overcrowding. But when the state assumes the responsibility of housing human beings, whether in hospitals or prisons, it has the responsibility to do it humanely. Federal authorities say inmates in the state’s obscenely overcrowded prisons die at the rate of one per week from treatable or avoidable illnesses. A separate federal receivership already has negotiated with state officials an overhaul of prison medical care expected to cost $1.9 billion in construction costs for new facilities.

This death, inhumane overcrowding and escalating expense occur in a system in which the per-inmate cost is $49,000 a year, twice the national average by some estimates. The situation will require decisive action to reduce overcrowding and meet humane levels of care. This is achievable by contracting with other states for housing prisoners, early release of nonviolent offenders, early parole of prisoners nearing the end of their sentences and shifting some inmates to county jails — all steps that should have been taken without making a federal case of it.

In addition to contracting with other states for housing prisoners, as the editorial suggests, California should contract with private-sector providers for its own (in-state) facilities to reduce corrections costs and improve services. Of course, this would mean going up against the politically-powerful prison guards’ union, and legislators have already demonstrated that, even in the state’s current desperate fiscal climate, they are not wont to rock the boat and enact significant, needed reforms.

Other Resources:

Corporate Corrections? Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Privatization

Reason’s Prisons and Corrections Research and Commentary

Adam Summers is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. He has written extensively on privatization, government reform, law and economics, and various other political and economic topics.