Stopping Prison Construction Important First Step: More Reductions in Corrections Spending Needed to Protect Social Services

This piece was originally posted on the California Progress Report.

Posted on 11 January 2012

By Emily Harris
Californians United for a Responsible Budget

Governor Brown’s surprised Californians by unveiling his 2012-13 budget five days early on January 5th. The Budget has Californians calling for additional cuts to the corrections budget to prevent even further slashing of welfare, childcare, health care, education, and job opportunities.  The 2012-2013 proposal, which includes $8.887 billion in General Fund spending for Corrections, comes the same week as severe trigger cuts from last year’s budget and just days before 25 Counties are due to submit funding requests to build $602 million worth of jails across the state.

Until this year, when many of the state’s corrections needs were outsourced to the county level with Brown’s Public Safety Realignment, General Fund spending for prisons had climbed steadily from $604.2 million in 1980-81 to $9.6 billion in 2010-11, or from 2.9 percent to 10.5 percent of the state’s General Fund.  This year’s Budget projects $8.9 billion of General Fund expenditure on corrections, down from $9.6 billion last year.   The decrease in numbers of people in state prisons (from 163,152 to 132,167) and on parole (from 108,338 to 56,440) due to realignment implies a decrease in state incarceration and parole budgets–a reduction of $453.3 million in 2011-12 and $1.1 billion in 2012-13. Realignment is saving the state money by passing on some funding to counties, who have lower per diem expenditures. However, counting in special funds and bonds, the total expenditure on corrections this year will be $10,719 billion, which is an increase of 11.4% from last year’s budget.

In 2007, the state authorized AB 900 “the world’s largest prison construction plan,” which called for $7.4 billion in lease revenue bonds to build 53,000 more prison and jail cells, which will cost taxpayers roughly $1.5 billion per year to operate and billions of dollars in additional debt.  At the state level, the significant reduction in people in prison now mostly confined in county jails has resulted in the “rethinking of the Prison Facilities Plans.” Brown’s budget outlines the cancellation of both the Estrella infill project and the planned conversion of the DeWitt youth facility to an adult facility. It is anticipated that the state will avoid approximately $250 million in annual debt service costs as a result of the revised construction plan. The Budget also assumes savings of $125 million related to infrastructure projects authorized by AB 900 that are not needed as a result of realignment.

Canceling these two costly AB 900 prison construction projects is an important first step in reducing prison spending. Californians United for a Responsible Budget urges the Governor, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation and the Legislature to cancel the remaining AB900 projects. We’re downsizing the prison population by almost 1,000 people per week; we don’t need more prison cells. The cancellation of two AB900 projects is estimated to save the state $250 million a year in interest payments alone. How many billions in interest and operations costs would we save if the other AB900 projects were cancelled?

The proposed budget contains $602 million for jail expansion projects. Instead of expanding jail capacity, couldn’t the Legislature budget that $602 million to assist counties in establishing or expanding alternatives to incarceration and to fund community-based services in the neighborhoods from which many of those in our prisons come from?  The budget reinforces the need to continue to reduce the numbers of people imprisoned in our state prisons and also in our county jails.  If we create real incentives for the types of cost-saving alternatives to imprisonment and implement sentencing and parole reforms that dozen of states have already implemented, we could stop the massive cuts to the social safety net that are also outlined in this years budget.

During this massive crisis, Brown’s cuts deny welfare benefits to a quarter of a million people who depend on those modest payments to survive. Those families with children still drawing welfare payments will have their checks slashed to $368 per month. It eliminates the Healthy Families program that services 900,000 of the state’s poorest children. He cuts child care for 62,000 kids. “California continues to cut services on the backs of low-income families, which are also deeply impacted by building more prisons. It’s time that we reverse both of these trends.” says LeaJay Harper, Young Mother’s United Coordinator for the Center for Young Women’s Development.


Emily Harris is the Statewide Coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

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