As the costs for fixing its corrections system rocket higher, California is headed for a dubious milestone, reports the San Francisco Chronicle: for the first time the state will spend more on incarcerating inmates than on educating students in its public universities. Based on current trends, California’s prison budget will overtake spending on state universities in five years. No other big state spends close to as much on its prisons compared with universities. Under a new law, California will spend $7.4 billion on 40,000 new prison beds, and that is over and above the current annual operating budget of more than $10 billion. Interest payments alone on the billions of dollars of bonds that will be sold to finance the new construction will amount to $330 million a year by 2011 –money that will not be available for other state priorities.
“California is just off the charts compared with other states in corrections spending,” said Michael Jacobson of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. “Budgets are a zero-sum game, essentially. The money for corrections comes from other places. The shame of it is that California could have improved crime rates and a better funded higher education system if they ran things better.” Asked if prison spending accurately reflected the state’s values and priorities, several politicians insisted it did not. Some suggested it was something of an embarrassment for a state that in other areas, such as environmental programs, likes to think of itself as a pioneer in smart policymaking.