Nearly three decades after California cracked down on rising crime rates with tougher sentencing laws, the bill is coming due for what experts say has been one of the most ill-planned and flawed prison expansions in the country, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. At the heart of the problem is a simple but overpowering mismatch — lawmakers and prosecutors sent far more criminals to prison than Californians, ultimately, were willing to pay for. The result has been such acute overcrowding that critical prison programs and services are breaking down and require enormously expensive fixes.
On Thursday, a federal judge expressed shock at what he called the neglect and “depravity” in parts of the prison health care system, and ordered that a receiver take control. Court-ordered improvements could send costs soaring in a program that already spends $1.1 billion a year. Just weeks before, the Corrections Department opened Kern Valley State Prison, built at a cost of $716 million and hailed as the last of 22 new prisons in a $4.5 billion construction program. But days later, the head of the agency, Roderick Q. Hickman, told The Chronicle that Kern Valley could not possibly be the last prison, because the system holds twice the number of inmates it was designed for and is still adding more. Hickman said taxpayers will also have to pay many millions of dollars to upgrade older prisons and to comply with court orders demanding the correction of conditions so abysmal that they violate inmates’ constitutional rights. With some of the highest costs per inmate, the most violence, the highest rate of parolees going back to prison and the worst crowding, California’s corrections system is unlike any other system in the United States.