University budget, prison budget

The governor proposes swapping prison uniforms for mortarboards. I’m all for it. But he’s proposing to do it the wrong way.

Gov.  Schwarzenegger, having presided over devastating budget cuts to the University of Calif0rnia system despite the existence of a “compact” that was supposed to protect us, now proposes a constitutional amendment that would guarantee that the UC and Cal State University systems combined get no less than 10% of the state’s budget (up from a current 5.9%) while the prisons get no more than 7% (down from a current 9.7%).

I’m all for having such a provision in the Constitution; it’s a silly way to make budgets, but it’s the California way, and without a guarantee the universities are virtually guaranteed to continue to take it on the chin at budget season.   The UC system in particular, for all its faults, is a major global asset, and won’t be that for many more years under current trends.

That said, there are three aspects of the Governor’s plan – quickly endorsed by UC President Mark Yudof – that make no sense whatever.

First, the proposal would explicitly forbid using early release to help meet the target.   But California’s prisons are brimming with elderly folks whom it would be quite safe to release.  The alternative to releasing some of them is to drastically cut back on the number of people sent to prison in the first place.  No doubt some of the current prison admissions are unproductive or even counterproductive in terms of crime control – imprisoning drug dealers and technical violators of probation and parole would go high on that list – but I’d much rather release a 55-year-old who killed someone when he was 20 than let a 20-year-old street robber walk because the 55-year-old is filling what could have been his prison cell.  If we can learn to enforce probation and parole conditions with swift and certain – but not severe -sanctions, after the fashion of Hawaii’s HOPE program, we can cut crime, incarceration, and costs by shifting resources and bodies from institutional corrections to community corrections.

Second, the Governor proposes to cut costs drastically by privatization.  It’s true that California has high-cost prisons, but there’s scant evidence that private prisons are more efficient (as opposed to being able to “cream” less-costly inmates).   I’m all for setting up some competition for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but I’d rather try to do it through non-profits – you might think of them as “charter prisons” – than through the Corrections Corporation of America.

Third, instead of putting the proposal on the ballot by petition – which shouldn’t be hard to do, given the size of the UC and CSU faculty/staff/student/alumni populations – the Governor proposes to put it through the legislature, where it would need a 2/3 vote of each house to pass.  In what conceivable universe could the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association – long the most feared lobby in Sacramento – fail to mobilize at least one-third-plus-one votes in either the Senate or the Assembly?

Now that the Governor thrown out the first ball, I suggest that the friends of higher education take it and run with it.  Strip out the “no-early-release” provision, put the budget provision in the form of an initiative constitutional amendment, get the signatures, and put it on the November ballot.

We might be able to save this place yet.

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:

6 thoughts on “University budget, prison budget”

  1. "It’s true that California has high-cost prisons, but there’s scant evidence that private prisons are more efficient (as opposed to being able to “cream” less-costly inmates). "

    My understanding of the issue (as experienced in other US states) is that this is not quite correct. Assuming absolutely everything else to be the same, private prisons can be somewhat cheaper than government prisons. (In CA, the obvious mechanism by which this might occur would be to hire guards who are not part of the heavily compensated corrections union, one of the few unions that strike me as vastly more a force for evil than good.)

    The problem is that private companies now have a different incentive structure from the state. Under the sorts of contracts one always sees in the US, they are paid per body, basically — probably more for troublesome and dangerous bodies. Thus they have even less incentive than the state to try to rehabilitate prisoners, and they have every incentive to try to juice up just how violent their prisoners — and these worries are not theoretical, they are the behavior that has been observed. Of course they also get involved heavily in the same sort of behavior we have seen from the corrections union — trying to constantly ratchet up fear of crime, outrage at early release, pump up the number of prisoners and how violent they are considered. One might ask how different this is from the corrections union in CA; but the answer is surely that one monster pushing this line is bad enough. A second monster, with different skills and connections will only make this problem that much worse.

    (In theory, of course, one could write a different sort of contract, one that rewarded rehabilitation, that encouraged early release — but penalized the company for recidivists. In practice, in the US, we don't see contracts like that even in a field like medicine, where the issues are vastly better understood and controlled; and no company wants to sign up for that sort of liability, in the face of so many variables [the laws, the courts, the parole system] that they can't control. So let's not waste time on some libertarian fantasy of how this *can* all be solved perfectly if we just wrote the correct contract.)

    Bottom line is, it seems to me, the way to fight this is to point out the theoretical problems (misaligned incentives) and the actual empirical results of how these incentives have played out. (On the other hand, economics is the theology of our time, and economic dogmatists, for all their crap about "evidence" and "cost-benefit analysis" are like any believers— when faith conflicts with evidence, faith will always win.)

  2. More or less all the states face fiscal crisis of some severity, & criminal-justice policymaking will be dominated by this fact for some time. If the WBFF agenda is to be adopted anywhere any time soon, it will be in this environment. Some of the agenda items seem better fitted to it than others, but I don't have a clear sense how the new circumstances bear on it as a whole. If the last chapter were re-written as a memo for a legislators concerned w/ the budget crisis, what changes?

  3. I think a lot of the Calif problem is term limits: legislators who won't have to face the music in seven years have no incentive to take pain now to spare the state in future. Why try to stymy the guards' union? So this leads to second-best solutions like gimcrack constitutional amendments.

    Bring Back Jesse Unruh! "Son, if you can't eat their steaks, and drink their whiskey, and fuck their women, and vote against them in the morning, you don't belong here!"

  4. Dave's got it right. Term limits have insidious effects on legislative bodies that aren't apparent in executive offices. Perhaps this is because the executive has a better institutional memory in the form of long-term civil servants. In any event, the effects on the legislature are real and apparent. A newly-elected California Assemblycritter has six years (total) in office. What ends up happening is that she shows up in Sacramento, and some friendly lobbyist drapes his arm around her shoulder and says something like, "You're new here. Let me show you how this place works." And how "this place works" ends up being lobbyists running the legislature, and there are no term limits on lobbyists.

    Maybe California needs an initiative to require that lobbyists win election in order to be licensed, and have term limits on the licenses?

  5. "Perhaps this is because the executive has a better institutional memory in the form of long-term civil servants."

    I've heard it said that term limits radically increased the power of executive-branch civil servants, because the collective memory of the legislative branch was gutted.

  6. There is, of course, professional legislative staff – in members' office, on committees,in support agencies. Still, there are fewer of them than there are executive-branch civil servants or lobbyists. Notwithstanding the principal-agent problems, I'd like to see more.

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