Government Spending

Reason Writers Around Town: Cutting California's Prison Costs


Reason Foundation Director of Government Reform Leonard Gilroy and Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, have a column in the Orange County Register and LA Daily News on how much prison costs contribute to the California budget deficit and how private prisons can be part of the solution:

The Legislative Analyst's Office found that correctional officers account for one in seven state employees and eat up a disproportionately large 40 percent of state personnel spending. The overcrowded state prisons house 167,000 inmates in a system designed for 84,000. As a result, federal judges have ordered California to release 40,000 inmates. And a federal receiver has taken over control of California's prison health care services due to a class action lawsuit and the poor quality of medical care in the system.

California is spending more than $8 billion on corrections this year, more than 10 percent of the massive state budget. State taxpayers spend about $133 per inmate—every day. Texas, which has the second largest inmate population after California, spends less than one-third of that amount—about $42.50 per inmate per day. One reason Texas spends so much less than California on prisons is its extensive use of public-private partnerships. Since 1989, Texas' annual data shows its cost savings from private prisons have averaged 15 percent a year. During that time, there was not a single year in which government-run prisons matched or were below the private prison costs.

A new Reason Foundation-Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation study finds that modest expansion of California's current use of public-private partnerships in corrections would save taxpayers nearly $2 billion over the next five years. Additionally, more aggressive use of private prisons and contracting out some operations of existing prison facilities would save another $400million to $1.2 billion each year.

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  1. You know what would save you a pantload of money in prison costs? Not sending so many people to prison.

    Legalize recreational drugs. It’s not just good policy, it’s fricking necessary.

  2. Is it me, or do these statistics make absolutely no sense at all?

    1. 43% of everyone knows that these statistics make no sense what so ever. The other 79% are undecided.

  3. How about we put less people in prison for consensual “crimes”?!? Jesus Christ monkeyballs, how is that not the #1 consideration in this column?

  4. The point about consensual crimes has already been made, I won’t go back over that.

    This is one area where I totally disagree with privitization. Giving people a monetary incentive to imprison others is a very, very, very bad fucking idea.

    We’ve already seen monetary incentives fuck up our 5th amendment rights in the WoD (seizure!), and cases like the one in PA with the two judges conspiring to send teenagers to prison to get kickbacks will become more widespread as more privitized prisons come about.

    For all the minarchists here, we can agree that prisons are one of the few real functions of the state. This is the last thing that should be privitized. If California wants to privitize shit to save money, maybe they should start with their fucking economy.

    1. +10

      The thing is there is already incentives in prisons in the form of state and federal subsidies. Prisoners become livestock to beef up numbers and insure the money keeps coming.

      The basic purpose of government that reasonable people should be able to agree on is Justice. Government should be held accountable for laws, prisons, and prisoner conditions, not businesses.

      1. There is that aspect, but I submit to you that that hazard exists whether the people running the prisons are public or private. Just look at California, where the prison guard union holds so much sway in the Assembly.

        1. I agree about the CA prison guard union. I think that 1963 law (I forget the name) allowing public employees to form unions should be repealed.

          Even prior to the recent spate of stories here, it’s long been obvious that unions in public positions are quite toxic to the idea of public service.

          Back on point, the hazard doesn’t exist so much in states that don’t have prison guard unions. And to address the point you made below this post, the prison in PA was actually paying judges to throw kids in their prison – many served time who should not have because of it.

          1. Even prior to the recent spate of stories here, it’s long been obvious that unions in public positions are quite toxic to the idea of public service.

            How are public employee unions different from private employee unions?

            1. A couple years ago I would have answered that public employee unions tend to have more sway over legislative bodies (i.e. taxing authorities) than private employee unions do. Then the Feds effectively took over GM and Chrysler in order to save the UAW. I guess there is no difference.

              Speaking of the UAW (thread hi-jack alert): If some investment banks are going to broken up because they are “too big to fail”, then shouldn’t huge unions (UAW, NEA, etc.) also be broken up because they are “too big to collapse”?

      2. I saws the wierdest thing today. A guy and a girl were looking at a small newspaper that looked like The Auto Shopper, but instead of pictures of cars, it was mug shots. There were even ads for online background check websites. Does anybody know what that was and where they would have gotten it?

    2. The private firms aren’t the ones tossing people into prisons, they’re just keeping an eye on them once they get there, BP.

      1. I have to disagree. Prison guards are law enforcement. They may be the McDonald’s workers of law enforcement and more criminal then most of the people they guard, but the point remains they ultimately have the power over life and liberty as sanctioned by the government. The government should be the one we point to for our heinous prisons.

        This is not the same as, say, a rent-a-cop who’s making sure the property of his private business is protected.

        1. unless people are property now..

    3. “Giving people a monetary incentive to imprison others is a very, very, very bad fucking idea.”

      Nobody gets a “monetary incentive”. Prison CEOs do not sentence the criminals. There are always a few bad apples like the judges in PA, but there isn’t a monetary incentive.

      The savings could be ridculous in the long run – no pensions, no paid healthcare, no unrealistic salaries for guards because they wouldn’t be govt employees. They’d get a 401(k) and a check like the rest of us schmucks.

      If they did this in conjunction with legalization of “victimless” crimes (e.g., Marijuana, Prostitution, etc.) the savings could be huge.

      1. Actually prisoners can already get transferred to state institutions from county lock-up to beef up numbers and insure federal funding. Which pays for their job..if that isn’t monetary incentive then what is?

      2. Nobody gets a “monetary incentive”. Prison CEOs do not sentence the criminals. There are always a few bad apples like the judges in PA, but there isn’t a monetary incentive.


        The Judge’s in PA did get direct monetary incentives. That’s not the way the system is supposed to work, but that’s how the system did work..

        You are correct that corrections corporations do not directly sentence criminals, but as in the PA case they used money to do so indirectly.

        Also, the corrections officers union in California is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state. They lobby for more get-tough-on-crime policies, which means more prisoners, which means more corrections officers, etc. Taking the system private will only make this worse as the (private) prison employees will not be subject to the restrictions on lobbying and organizing that limit the reach of many govt employee unions.

        Oh, and what BP and Epi said, too.

        1. “Taking the system private will only make this worse as the (private) prison employees will not be subject to the restrictions on lobbying and organizing that limit the reach of many govt employee unions.”

          And see how well that’s worked. Everything is just dandy – if you’re a state prison employee or a judge.

          Do you realize that judges can take money from unions or corporations? The problem isn’t who manages the prisions, but corrupt judges. Nobody forces the judges to take money from anybody. Corrupt judges and politicians will exist no matter who runs the prisons.

      3. So how do the prisons get compensated? I suspect they get some sort of per-person compensation, at least a small portion of which is profit. Every prisoner is a few more dollars on the bottom line.

        Now you have an industry that has its interests against the decriminalazation of consensual crimes, and will lobby against any changes to lessen or remove sentences against these activities.

    4. BP, the prison guard unions already have a monetary incentive for people to be imprisoned.

      It’s completely fucked, and the only solution is NOT PUTTING PEOPLE IN PRISON FOR DOING DRUGS.

      1. Yeah, I know. They’re one of the biggest contributors to the PACs fighting against marijuana legalization.

        And as I mentioned above, I don’t believe government employees shuld be able to form unions.

    5. + infinity to the mellow aquatic anarctic waterfowl

      1. See also, the questionable incentives and documented results of Xe.

      2. mellow aquatic anarctic waterfowl

        I thought penguins were minarchists…

        1. I am, but several friends have pointed out that we don’t need police to guards our eggs, and they couldn’t do anything against orcas, anyway.

    6. As hard as it is to agree with someone who wears a tux to go fishing I pretty much concur. I do not like the idea of privatized cops either.

      What privitization cost benefits expose is the government inability to responsibly represent the taxpayers when negotiating employment contracts with public sector unions.

      If I had my way, public employee unions would be illegal or completely ignored by government. Their whole raison d’etre (protecting workers from greedy capitalist employers) in a non-sequitur vis a vis public employment in a representative democracy.

    7. “Giving people a monetary incentive to imprison others is a very, very, very bad fucking idea.”

      Just askin’, but isn’t that the way it is now?

      The people doin’ the arresting, the people doing the convicting and the people doing the warehousing are, more or less, the same bunch of people. …and the more arresting the cops do, the more business the union guys get.

      Privatizing the warehousing aspect would seem to divvy those incentives up a bit.

      1. Again, keep in mind that most of the rest of the country does not have prison guard unions.

        1. Please cite your source

          While they may not be “prison guard” unions specifically, AFSCME and other public employee unions cover most the rest IIRC.

    8. Giving people a monetary incentive to imprison others is a very, very, very bad fucking idea.

      Not sure I follow. Nobody has (any more of) a monetary incentive to imprison anyone if prisons are privately managed. The cops, DAs, all the people who actually send people to prison, are all still on the public payroll, not on the payroll of the prison operator.

      1. And I believe the cops and the prison guards are all in the same union, which kinda gives a whole meaning to the term “organized crime”.

        1. Sure, but private unions and lobbies have power and influence, too. I think once we make a clear delineation between public agents enforcing public laws and openly being in the private business of warehousing human beings, there is potentially more of an economic incentive to corrupt (our already corrupt)justice.

          Or maybe not, maybe it’s purely aesthetic. But if Justice isn’t the realm of government WHAT IS? And who pays private entities to hold human beings at gunpoint and restrict them from their liberties? Do prisons become workhouses again? Sure, judges declare people criminals and sentence them there, but it’s ultimately guards and wardens that hold them there. That is the Force in Law Enforcement. If that is no longer the realm of government why should anything be?

          1. “But if Justice isn’t the realm of government WHAT IS?”

            I’m with you on that. …just to be clear.

            But I’m not convinced that warehousing people is necessarily part of what’s required for justice. Determining whether people are guilty, writing the laws, etc., that’s one thing, but sentencing people to be warehoused under the care of the government employee union may constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

            Most people would send their kids to private schools if they could–private schools are thought to offer better quality and often at a lower total cost.

            Is there any other situation where people are generally treated better by government employee union workers than they are by private enterprise?

            The only thing that makes me squeamish is the idea of private contractors training guns on people or shooting them for trying to escape from a private jail…

            Anyway, my point is that you’d think this would be the last thing the state would do. That if there’s any legitimate function for state government at all, it’s for keeping convicted criminals locked up. And that the fact that they’re releasing criminals rather than cutting more government jobs elsewhere is indicative of how screwed up the system is.

            You’re right though, if justice is in the realm of government, then why are we releasing convicted criminals and keeping a fairly elite university system on the government dole?

            I mean, if its willing to give up in such a fundamental way on its most important functions, then how bad does the economy have to get before California finally starts eliminating unnecessary functions?

            1. I almost totally agree, and I would never argue public employees make better employees.

              I just think government should run prisons because that’s the end result of government force. Right or wrong, the penitentiary is an extension of our justice system. In the real world, that just means they’re run all that more inefficiently. But that has just as much to do with our societal indifference to people that go through the system as it does with corruption. Prisons should be run better, less people should be going to them, and fewer people should be making a living in the business. privatization could only alleviate the first issue.

              1. I think I agree.

                Especially when it comes to things like enforcing prison discipline…

                I suppose they could bring in judges or state officials to handle disciplinary issues, but it’s not like in the military where people are there more or less voluntarily…

                People shouldn’t be obligated to follow some private contractor’s rules or face something like solitary confinement.

      2. RC, for one thing, there was the PA case I mentioined above. The prisons were giving judges kickbacks to send them kids who really hadn’t done anything wrong, or at least anything worth imprisonment.

        The other thing is that it creates an interest group(s) who will fight against the legalization or decriminalization of consensual “crimes”. Look at the groups opposing CA’s marijuana legalization. The prison guard union is front and center. I am also willing to bet that privitized prison corporations will be heavy donors to any 527’s fighting the CA bill.

  5. Calling for a fascist prison system to replace a socialist one is nine drinks (because “nine” is the most fascist-sounding number).

  6. “The overcrowded state prisons house 167,000 inmates in a system designed for 84,000. As a result, federal judges have ordered California to release 40,000 inmates.”

    Captain Obvious here to point out that, yes, the state really would release tens of thousands of convicted criminals rater than privatize schools or lay off government workers elsewhere.

    Have a nice day.

    1. OH NOES, Ken! They might release people imprisoned for doing heinous things like selling pot!

      1. I believe they’re actually getting to the point where they’re releasing people who’ve been convicted of violent crimes.

        “A review of inmate records by the Associated Press shows some of the criminals freed from county jails were convicted of a variety of violent offenses, including assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence, and child and elderly abuse.

        The program specifically bars the release of prisoners convicted of a number of specified crimes, including murder and rape. But any offense not specifically listed gives counties leeway in deciding who gets out of jail.

        More than 1,800 prisoners were let out of jail before they served their full sentences in the first few weeks of the early release program, according to the California State Sheriffs’ Association. Hundreds more have been freed since then – but the tracking has stopped.

        The news organization looked at release records from three counties: Alameda, Orange and San Bernardino. In San Bernardino County, for instance, the AP found 29 percent of the 642 inmates released had been convicted of crimes involving violence.”

        —-Press Telegram, April 5, 2010

        Anyway, regardless of whether you think pot sellers and heroin addicts should be locked up, I wouldn’t argue to reasonable people anywhere that releasing tens of thousands of convicted criminals, just to protect union jobs, is a good thing since drugs should be legal.

        Really, that argument won’t play anywhere. That argument’s an embarrassment, actually…

        What you think should be a crime is one question, and whether convicted criminals should be released just to save union jobs is another question entirely.

        Have a nice day.

      2. Shit, it’s California. They’ll keep the drug dealers in jail* and release rapists who had traumatic childhoods, and arsonists – just in time for brush fire season.

        *After all, Obama compared them to terrorists. And no elected official in CA would disagree with the Unicorned one.

    2. I mean, seriously, Stanford does it. Why can’t Berkeley and UCLA, at the very least, stand on their own two feet?

      Even if you want to argue that economically disadvantaged Asian kids* need a cheap education too, you’ve still got the whole freakin’ Cal State system!

      *It’s kind of a Westwood, inside joke.

  7. We should just, like, privatize the courts too, man…

  8. Prison is an important source of jobs for our economy during the rescession. We have moved from a manufacturing, to a services, and now to a prison based economy.

    1. lol. Technically, a prison-based economy is still a service-based economy.

      I, for one, would like to get a union job delivering pizzas to prisons.

  9. end public employee unions – agree
    end incarceration/crimiality for consensual stuff – agree

    But, I am confused why many of you are arguing against at least some privatization of corrections? Certainly a partial privatization would lead to some competition and improved methods.

    We could attempt to add some firewalls to prevent interference by corrections in the sentencing and law making arenas.

    What would be most helpful is to actually create some goals for what corrections is supposed to accomplish and incentivize based upon that. Funding based on recidivism? Health and safety inside facility? Customer satisfaction 🙂

    You guys are freaking me out today with all of your statism 🙁

    1. Also, privatizing delivery of a service doesn’t necessarily mean privatizing responsibility for that service.

      1. Rick, great point about the responsibility factor.

        The statist zeigteist for the day seems to be that judges are less corrupt if the prisons are filled with public employees.

        I feel like I’ve landed on the DailyKos by accident.

      2. As I stated before, prison guards are the force in law enforcement. Giving a rent a cop the power over a man’s life in liberty in the name of the state makes the state itself pointless.

        1. My point is when that “service” is force, it’s probably not the best idea to give some private citizen enormous powers without any actual public responsibility.

  10. My feelings against privatization of law enforcement is just part of a stubble of hair I have to split with Anarcho-capitalists in general.

    I support limited government. The genuine purpose of government is to protect our freedom. There is no freedom without law. And it is only through public means such as legislatures, courts, ect. that these laws and their enforcement have any legitimacy.

    I have no problem with private contractors building the prisons, doing its laundry, or supplying its food. But when you’re talking about Guards, Wardens, and anyone else with the immediate violent power to hold someone for years against their will due to local, state, or federal laws then I think it’s necessary for better or worse that these employees are agents of the state.

    I have major problems with bounty hunters (and repomen) for these same reasons.

    How corrupt and bullshit our current justice system is another subject to me altogether.

    1. I worked in corrections for a couple years, and I think many here misunderstand the role or daily duties of a corrections employee. The state is doing the holding, corrections merely manages the logistics. Get them to meals, get them to work, get them to the shower (that’s for Warty), make sure they don’t kill a guard, eachother, themselves.

      I think people tend to confuse all justice field people with the cops – and some of those brutish, jack-booting thugs. Trust me, you wouldn’t last a month acting like a tough guy prison guard around real, professional sociopaths.

      It ain’t like the movies. Corrections officers have almost zero real power, authority, and you realize most are unarmed right?

      1. Yes, so long as the prisoners do exactly as they’re told. And I’m sure it depends on the specific facility.

        Regardless, they have more power than any man would legally have over another in private life.

        1. And I think the overall menializing of the job and the “we just work here” dispersion of personal responsibility that seems to grip most corrections officers I’ve personally met has more to do with an all too human reaction to a shitty job then any real lack of power.

          But I could just be prejudiced. I had an uncle who was a jail guard in New York, and he was one of the biggest assholes Ive ever known.

  11. Too many comments for me to check to see if others have said the same – this is one of former Governor Gray Davis’s legacies. He effectively shut down the private prisons in CA on his watch making sure that all prison employees were unionized also.

  12. Felons give up certain rights when convicted. I get the concern with non-gov guards but to me this is less important than providing a service for the fewest $$$. Cali is a mess and all cost saving plans should be applied now. Crap, if they are wasting this much in Corrections imagine WTF they are pissing away across the board. Fook Me.

  13. Huntsville Prison in Texas used to be 100% self-sustaining. With a pool of free labor that size, no prison should cost the taxpayers a solitary dime.

  14. California’s proposal to shrink its budget deficit by cutting its prison population is a lukewarm response to a golden opportunity. California, and America, have a tragically overstimulated system of corrections, but if the solution were easy than it would have happened already. A fresh approach to how we understand prison and the goal of incarceration is the basis for a new system that balances crime prevention with the cost of locking up so many Americans.

    Read more:…..audit.html

  15. Great idea, and we could cut back on the overcrowding a little bit as we have over 500 people on death row. Gas em all tomorrow and that just opened up a boat load of space.

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