As the costs for fixing the state's troubled corrections system rocket higher, California is headed for a dubious milestone -- for the first time the state will spend more on incarcerating inmates than on educating students in its public universities.
Based on current spending trends, California's prison budget will overtake spending on the state's universities in five years. No other big state in the country spends close to as much on its prisons compared with universities.
Under a new state law, California will spend $7.4 billion to build 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 -- all money that will not be available for higher education or other state priorities.
This is profoundly disturbing. Especially, since the politicians themselves know that this is bad public policy. "Asked if the prison spending accurately reflected the state's values and priorities, several politicians insisted it did not, and 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."
In the Governor's proposed 2007-08 budget the state will spend $10 billion on prisons and $12 billion on higher education, but the Legislative Analyst estimates spending on universities will increase by 5% per year while spending on prisons will increase by 9%.