California is a mess financially, and one of its huge burdens is its prisons. National Public Radio says the state spends $10 billion a year on its prison system, which once was a model for states to follow but now is a model of what to avoid. The prison population has grown to 175,000, not because of an increase in crime, but because of tough-on-crime laws. Parole and probation is a complicating factor. California has the country’s toughest parole sanctions. Each year the system releases 120,000 parolees, and each year 75,000 return to prison for violating parole on technical terms, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer.
Texas used to have similar laws but found them too costly. So it slowly stopped returning parolees to prison for technical violations, and now Texas doesn’t have the overcrowding and fiscal problems facing California. Another challenge is the rising cost of health care. It adds up to a vicious cycle that California’s prisons can’t seem to pull out of: Tough laws mean more prison time, causing overcrowding, and leading to less money for health care and other programs to help rehabilitate people and keep them from coming back to prison.