California’s Prison/Union Problem

Any reader interested in state fiscal policy, particularly California’s, should read this excellent piece of journalism from NPR on the state’s prison predicament. (Actually, folks interested in reading why anti-drug policies and some “get tough on crime” efforts are counterproductive should also check this out.)

California’s prison system is a costly, overcrowded, criminal-spawning mess, and the chief culprit is the state’s prison employee union.  But this isn’t just another story about public employee unions extracting exorbitant salaries and benefits at the expense of taxpayers:

In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support “three strikes” and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to [former Governor Pete] Wilson after he backed the three strikes law.  And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

[Former CA Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation Secretary Roderick] Hickman says the union was able to control the department’s policy decisions, including undermining efforts to divert offenders from prison and reduce the prison population.  “Maybe I was just impatient,” he says, “or it wasn’t going to go fast enough, but [the department] is still in the same place I left it, with an over $8 billion budget. Now it’s over $10 billion.”  Today, 70 percent of that budget goes to pay salaries and benefits to the union and staff. Just 5 percent of the budget goes to education and vocational programs — the kind of programs that study after study in the past 10 years has found will keep inmates from returning to prison.

This activity strikes me as downright criminal.

Again, the entire article is worth a read, especially with state politicians currently attempting to scare taxpayers into supporting tax increases in order to continue their profligate spending through the recession.  Kudos to NPR’s Laura Sullivan for digging into a state’s operations before writing a piece bemoaning its alleged budget woes.

H/T: Reason’s Leonard Gilroy