California pays rising price for prison growth
Amid a budget crisis, the state is under pressure to approve $7 billion more for prison healthcare.
California, home to 1 in 10 American state prison inmates, is getting a nudge from the federal government to move faster to revamp its overcrowded prison system.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Already engaged in an extensive $7.7 billion plan to dramatically expand prison capacity, the state now faces federal pressure to oversee another $7 billion in upgraded healthcare facilities for prison inmates. The legislature this week will examine a request to approve the new spending, which would require new borrowing.
The plan comes at a crucial time for California's prison system – and the state's finances. The combined tab of nearly $15 billion for prison reform has dismayed lawmakers already faced with a $16 billion budget deficit that has prompted huge proposed cuts in spending on education and health care.
A prison system in crisis
Operating at almost double capacity, with almost 172,000 inmates in 33 facilities, California's problems reflect a national pattern, say experts. Years of tough crime policies, including "three strikes you're out" laws and harsher parole rules, have resulted in overcrowded prisons and inadequate health services.
"California is a window into what many US states are facing with overcrowded prisons that are now more apparent to taxpayers during hard financial times," says Michael P. Jacobson, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization based in New York.
Local and state lawsuits have forced prison reforms in states from Texas and Alabama to Connecticut and Kansas in recent years. But California's expensive new measures may have broader implications in igniting public pressure to scale back mandatory sentencing laws, remedy parole services, and find new ways to control prison costs.