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California’s Department of Corrections: Shifting Prisoners and Costs to Counties

Source: Matteo ParriniFlickr

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR)’s share of the State budget has ballooned from under 3% in 1980 to almost 10% today. While several factors are responsible for the 1327% increase in CDCR’s budget in just three decades, the state inmate population has been a key driver, expanding rapidly since 1980 and spurring a prison overcrowding crisis in California. Pressed by a federal court-mandated 2013 deadline to substantially reduce prison overcrowding, the State has worked to redistribute its overall prison population among state prisons and county jails.

With the 2012-13 Realignment plan, the Brown Administration seeks to further reduce the inmate population and decrease the department’s share of the State’s General Fund budget to 7.5%. While the plan may achieve the aforementioned goals, the overall number of inmates in the statewide penal system may not be reduced. Barring altered sentencing policies, the State will be forced to devote critical resources to the growing inmate population in the county penal system. 

The population explosion in prisons is not the sole reason for CDCR’s expansion. An impact assessment of three factors prison guard salaries, inmate health care and excess inmate populationi revealed that other variables have played significant, albeit smaller, roles as well.ii Security personnel salaries increased by more than 180% during 1980-2012, slightly ahead of inflation, while salaries for all other general state employees trailed behind inflation. Health care costs per prisoner increased more than six times in that time and comprised 16% of inflation adjusted CDCR cost growth (the biggest jump was seen after 2006 when the federal courts appointed a Receiveriii to ensure that inmates received constitutional levels of healthcare).iv But the excess growth of inmate population was responsible for 55% of the increase in CDCR’s total expenditures between 1980 and 2011. Essentially, had the inmate population not grown to five times its 1980 size, California’s corrections system would demand far fewer state funds than it does today.

To a large degree, this inmate population growth stemmed from the changes in the state’s sentencing policies over the last three decades. After the 1977 Determinate Sentencing Law established prescribed lengths for prison terms, the State passed more than 1,000 additional sentence enhancement bills during the 1980s to lengthen the average prison stay.v The most well-known product of this tough-on-crime period was the nation’s strictest Three Strikes This law ensured that repeat offenders remained incarcerated for long periods of time, sometimes for life, even if their most recent conviction was for a minor offense. Thus even when California’s crime rate began to decline after 1995, the inmate population continued to expand, peaking at 165,164 in 2006.vii

Had the drop in crime rates been a result of the strict sentencing laws such as Three Strikes, the prison system expansion may have been a worthwhile burden.  But no study has established a definitive link between these laws and California’s decreased crime rate.viii  States with no such laws have also experienced similar declines in their crime rates over the last two decades. And within California, counties that invoked this law more often did not experience a greater reduction in crime rates than counties which used the law less frequently. 

In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger restructured all youth and correctional agencies under the flagship of CDCR.  This restructuring helped reduce the state prison population for the first time in three decades. However, the process merely redistributed the responsibility of housing inmates between state prisons and other facilities. The Schwarzenegger administration was unable to make concrete policy changes that would reduce the number of felons entering the state penal system as a whole.   

Despite the Schwarzenegger’s Administration’s efforts, state prisons remained overcrowded.  In 2011, a federal court mandated that California reduce its prison overcrowding to 137.5% of design capacity prompting the Brown administration to expand and make permanent the extant policies.

The Public Safety Realignment of 2011 shifted the authority for incarcerating and rehabilitating non-serious, non-violent and non-sex offenders to the counties (excluding inmates convicted before October 2011).ix Governor Brown has argued that counties can better tailor incarceration and rehabilitation of the low risk offenders around their respective communities. Consequently, the 2012-13 CDCR Realignment further expands the population being incarcerated under county authority to include drug abuse offenders and certain female offenders.x  Because more than half of offenders return to prison within three years of their release due to technical violations of parole, 2011 Realignment will prohibit prison sentencing for such offenders.xi  This is intended to free up prison space that can then be used to house California inmates currently living in expensive out-of-state prisons.  For the prisoners remaining in State custody, the current Realignment plan seeks to expand the overall system’s housing capacity by constructing three new prisons and expanding housing facilities in currently unoccupied spaces (in-fills) within existing prisons.

However, this step increases the number of offenders being sentenced to county jails, most of which are already operating under court- or self-imposed population caps to limit overcrowding. Thus counties now require more funding from the state; initially to expand jail space to absorb new prisoners, and later to maintain these facilities.xii  Alternative incarceration methods like GPS monitoring and home detention would help to provide cost-effective supervision of non-serious, non-violent, and non sex-offenders and reduce overcrowding of county jail space to some extent.xiii To help fund the additional costs to counties, the 2011 Realignment allots $6 billion annually, some of which counties will use to manage their increased jail population.xiv

Overall, although shifting some incarceration responsibilities to local jurisdictions has lessened CDCR’s burden on the state budget, this move has not necessarily reduced California’s overall penal population or system costs, but simply redistributed them. Consequently, California’s total penal spending will continue to absorb critical state resources, thereby driving the State to continuously revisit its budget priorities into the foreseeable future.

Works Cited [+ Expand]

i Growth in excess of the growth of California’s general population, which increased by 50% in that period.

ii The assessment assigned contribution values to growth in prison population, salary hikes of correctional officers, and growth in health care expenditure from 1980 to 2006 and 1980 to 2012.  It measured how much each factor contributed to the growth of total CDCR expenditures in those periods when adjusting for inflation.

iii The Receiver is an officer of the court, appointed to oversee an office on behalf of the court. This usually occurs in cases of ongoing litigation or dispute, where the day-to-day operations of an organization are being affected and hence need a non-partisan controller to keep it going until the dispute is resolved.

iv The overall growth of security guard salaries (after taking in to account recent decline in average salaries) are responsible for only half-a-percent of the same.  The impact assessment did not take into account the fluctuations in average salaries between 1980 and 2011. For instance, prison guard salaries were responsible for 9% growth in CDCR budget between 1980 and 2006.

v Simpson, Richard, Jailhouse Blues: Hard Times for County Taxpayers: A Study of Rising Costs of Incarceration in California, California Counties Foundation, (1991)

vi Enacted in 1994 both in statute (AB 971, Jones) and by the a ballot measure as Proposition 184;

Jaffe, Ina, “Two Torn Families Show Flip Side Of 3 Strikes Law (First of a Three Part Series)”, National Public Radio, (Oct 2009), <’storyId=114219922>.

vii Total number of inmates in housed in adult correctional institutions and out-of-state prisons. Governor’s Proposed Budget 2008-09, California Department of Finance, (Jan 2008),  <>

viii Schiraldi, Colburn, and Lotke, “Three Strikes and You’re Out: An Examination of the Impact of 3-Strike Laws 10 Years after their Enactment“, Justice Policy Institute, (2004), <>;

Schafer, John R., “The Deterrent Effect of Three Strikes Law“, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, (Apr 1999),  <>

ix This legislation simultaneously reclassified a number of felonies as serious and/or violent, keeping them as grounds for sentencing to state prisons.

x The Future of California Corrections: A Blueprint to Save Billions of Dollars, End Federal Court Oversight, and Improve the Prison System, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (2012), <>

xi 2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report“, California Department of Corrections And Rehabilitation, Office of Research, (Nov 2011), <>

xii 71% of the people in jails are pre-trail detainees who either are awaiting their court dates or dont have enough resources to post a bail. Hopper, Dooley-Sammuli, and Evans, “Public Safety Realignment: California at a Crossroads“, American Civil Liberties Union of California, (Mar 2012),  <>;

xiii Misczynski, Dean, “Rethinking the State-Local Relationship: Corrections“, Public Policy Institute of California, (Aug 2011), <>;

Realignment Proposal Changes Since January 10 Budget“, Department of Finance, California, (Feb 2011),   <>

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