January 14, 2016
Michael Rushford, President
Criminal Justice Legal Foundation
CALIFORNIA SENTENCING REFORMS ARE FAILING ON BOTH COSTS AND SAFETY
Two investigative reports by major news agencies have shown that Governor Jerry Brown’s 2011 prison realignment plan, which he promised would reduce costs to the state by $1.5 billion by 2015-2016, is actually costing the state more money, while jeopardizing public safety.
Public Safety Realignment, or AB109, was signed into law in 2011 by Governor Brown after the U. S. Supreme Court upheld a federal judicial panel’s ruling that California’s overcrowded prisons violated the Eighth Amendment and ordered the state to reduce the prison population from 200 to 137.5 percent of so-called “design capacity.” To accomplish this, the new law transferred responsibility for thousands of felons from the state to the counties, an approach intended to keep state designated “low-level, non-violent, non-sex offender” criminals out of jails and prisons, relying on short jail terms coupled with drug treatment and rehabilitation programs to save billions of state tax dollars while reducing crime.
In the beginning, the strategy appeared to deliver on its promise to reduce the prisoner population as well as overall costs—triple bunk-beds were eliminated, 15 contract facilities were closed, and the number of inmates was reduced by 22,000 in just six months—all of which contributed to financial savings. By late 2012, after the state cut costs by freezing hiring, reducing staff through attrition, and cutting programming, the budget had dropped to $8.7 billion, $1 billion less than two years earlier.
But by 2014, Los Angeles Times reporter Paige St. John found that prison realignment was not simply failing on its guarantee to save money, it was actually costing the state billions of additional dollars. As of June 2014, California was spending nearly $2 billion more per year on incarceration than in 2011. By requiring that most felons serve sentences in county jails, some for as long as 42 years, counties have had no choice but to expand their facilities to house felons for longer periods and provide them with rehabilitation and other services, which has so far cost California taxpayers $1.7 billion.
According to a 2016 Reuters report, five years ago, the price tag for housing, feeding, and caring for a state prison inmate was $49,000 per year: today, it costs $64,000. And even though there has been a decline in inmates this fiscal year, which began in July 2015, the state’s corrections budget is at $10.1 billion, one of the largest ever. The state is currently spending an additional $1 billion per year to train and equip county jail staff to handle an influx of serious felons serving hard time in local jails and to help fund sentencing alternatives. Another $2.2 billion in state tax dollars has been set aside for county jail construction.
Additionally, following several court rulings, improving medical care has been a major focus in California corrections. The state currently spends $295 million annually to maintain the California Healthcare Facility built in 2013 in Stockton to cater to inmates requiring long-term care. This past year, a total of $60.6 million was spent for new Hepatitis C treatments alone.
Aside from rising costs, Realignment has forced county sheriffs to release felons after serving only a fraction of their sentences due to overcrowding. This, along with California’s Proposition 47 which downgraded several felonies to misdemeanors, has put thousands of active criminals back on the streets. According to state data, from October 2011 to June 2013, California jail releases increased by 45,000, and the number of inmates freed before serving half of their sentences doubled. The Los Angeles Times reports that on any given day in Los Angeles County, 4,300 offenders roam the streets who would otherwise be incarcerated if there were space.
On December 30, 2015, the Los Angeles Police Department reported that, for the first time in ten years, both violent crime and property crime increased over 2015, with violent crime up over 19%.
“California prison reform advocates claim that saving money was never the main purpose of realignment, even though the Governor promised it to gain public support,” said CJLF President Michael Rushford. “But after nearly five years, the state is essentially spending additional billions of dollars to keep Californians less safe,” he added.