It’s true that California needs more tax revenue to pay for higher education, among the state’s many other needs. And yes, magical thinking by politicians gets old fast. But the Washington Monthly’s Daniel Luzer is wrong to say that we can’t fix the higher-ed problem out of savings on incarceration. We can, and should
As Luzer points out, we spend a ton of money on prisons partly because the guards are generously paid. But California also has a ton of prisoners: about five times as many, per capita, as the state had 35 years ago, when crime was higher than it is today. (Alas, that’s in line with national trends.)
Now that we understand how to punish people and control their behavior without paying their room-and-board bills, by enforcing the conditions of community corrections (probation and parole) with swift and certain, rather than severe, penalties for violations, California doesn’t need to have 170,000 state prison inmates. We could cut that number in half, while also reducing crime, by moving resources out of the prison system and into the community-corrections system.
Cutting the prison population in half would save about $2.5 billion per year. Half a billion of that would be ample to create a 21st-Century probation and parole system, with GPS monitoring in addition to random drug testing. Put another half a billion into police, courts, prosecution, and public defense, and you’ve still got $1.5 billion per year to split between the Cal State system and the UC system. That would undo the damage done during the current crisis, and then some. That would mean that UCLA could get back to the project of becoming one of the greatest universities in the world, rather than settling for being one of the best public universities in the country.
Whether Governor Brown could get it done is a different question. But California used to spend more money on college than it did on prison, and there’s no good reason not to restore that sensible priority ordering.