December 24, 2003

Gov. Schwarzenegger: To Help Kids and Fight Crime, Cut Prison Spending

By Esta Soler
and Vincent Schiraldi

Before California’s gubernatorial campaign, Arnold Schwarzenegger knew the importance of after-school programs in preventing crime. In 2002, he led the campaign for Proposition 49, which called for after-school funding for every public elementary and middle school in the state. But despite the proposition’s passage, most of the programs remain unfunded.

Now, as governor, Schwarzenegger can find plenty of money for after-school initiatives by cutting California’s bloated prison budget. By reducing the incarceration of technical parole violators and other nonviolent offenders and closing some prisons, the governor can save money, build safer communities and help reduce the likelihood of our young people occupying a prison cell when they grow up.

The period right after school lets out is the time when kids are most likely to get in trouble or become victims themselves. Yet, after-school programs are unavailable to 1 million elementary and middle schoolers with working parents, and 500,000 high school students.

Prisons, however, have become a political sacred cow in California. The state’s prison system grew from a sleepy little department that imprisoned 20,000 people at a cost of $675 million annually in 1980, to a behemoth with a $5.3 billion dollar budget and nearly 160,000 inmates. While every government department trimmed programs to the bone this year, the California Department of Corrections overspent its budget by a half-billion dollars.

By investing more public safety dollars in proven prevention strategies such as pre-school and after-school programs, home visitation programs, intervention for children exposed to violence and programs supporting vulnerable adolescents, California could reduce violence on the street and in the home. Intensive and comprehensive prevention programs have been shown to cut juvenile arrest rates and reduce the likelihood of child abuse. Since being abused almost doubles a child’s chances of growing up to become a chronic offender, investing in prevention is more effective at building safe and healthy communities than investing in prison walls.

To generate these prevention dollars, the governor needs to follow through on his pledge to break with the special interests of the past. He must enact sensible parole reforms. A recent study by the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan, independent state body that promotes efficiency and effectiveness in government, found that two out of three California parolees end up back in prison (about 100,000 people a year). The commission called the state’s parole system “a billion dollar failure.”

The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has since touted a plan to reduce the number of parole revocations by a third, cutting the prison population by 15,000 by the end of 2005. At an annual cost of $24,000 per inmate, this reform alone would save $360 million.

If Gov. Schwarzenegger can resist the cries of the California prison guards union — which consistently fights prison reforms tooth and nail — hundreds of millions could be saved in other ways. The state could cancel the construction of a new prison in Delano, saving $124 million annually in operating costs and debt service. With the CDC projecting a decline in California’s prison population, the new prison is a boondoggle.

If low-level shoplifters were sentenced to county jail or probation instead of state prison, the state would save $41 million annually in prison costs and another $172 million in construction costs. By eliminating post-release supervision for nonviolent, non-serious, non-drug sale offenders so that parole agents could focus on parolees who need more services, the state would save $114 million annually.

Renegotiating the $1 billion raise received by the powerful prison guards last year, when everyone else was taking cuts, would also net substantial savings.

Gov. Schwarzenegger should join the growing ranks of Republican governors who are using their established “tough on crime” credentials to take advantage of the change in public opinion toward incarceration and enact sensible reforms to the country’s prison systems. By reigning in California’s bloated corrections budget and redirecting some of the savings to invest in California’s young people, the governor could garner support from victims, law enforcement and prisoners’ rights advocates and prevent crime and reduce over-reliance on incarceration all at once.

Esta Soler is founder and president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which works nationally to respond to the epidemic of violence against women and children. Vincent Schiraldi is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to ending society’s reliance on incarceration.

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