Saving California’s universities

There’s enough money in the prison budget to get it done. The trick is having fewer prisoners.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “Saving California’s universities”

  1. Sold, so now how do we make this happen?

    Also, if California won't give the program a try how about a neighboring state, preferably one filled with Ducks and Beavers…

  2. Why do you think Brown is the guy to do it? He has a positive relationship with the unions, they are backing him. One of the things which has to happen, on your scenario, is less money going to prison guards – through having fewer prison guards. They are not going to like that. Another thing which would be helpful is adjusting downward the salary and pensions of prison guards – which would help get away from the rather disgraceful situation of private prisons, which are attractive mostly because they are relatively cheap. Again, is Whitman not your more likely choice, since she already had an antagonistic relationship with the unions?

    I'm going to bang the drum, again, for one of my fave Cali quotes ever: Jesse Unruh to new Assembly member – "Son, unless you can eat their steaks, and drink their whiskey, and fuck their women, and vote against them in the morning, you don't belong here". I don't see any reason to think Brown is capable of voting against them in the morning. If he's elected, I'd love to be shown to be wrong.

  3. Meg Whitman has taken the "no new taxes" pledge. California needs more revenue. End of discussion.

    (Even putting aside her pandering to the nativists.) Back when the Republicans were still a responsible alternative governing party, the Brown nomination is exactly the sort of Democratic move that would have had me looking hard at the Republican candidate. Tom Campbell would have been a very serious candidate for Governor. But it's the Party of Palin now, and no sane person should think about voting for any of its candidates while that condition lasts.

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