There's a direct relationship between how much money the Golden State spends on prisons and how much it spends on higher education, according to a report put out by the non-partisan public policy group California Common Sense. When one goes up, the other goes down.
And, at least in California, the former has been going up a lot more than the latter.
The study, entitled Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California, looked at the state's general fund expenditures on corrections and higher education from the period between 1981 and 2011.
Since 1980, higher education spending has decreased by 13 percent in inflation adjusted dollars, whereas spending on California's prisons and associated correctional programs has skyrocketed by 436 percent. The state now shells out more money from its general fund for the prison system than the higher education system. (When combined with K-12 education, the state's overall education spending dwarfs its prison expenditures.)
Fifty-five percent of the growth of corrections spending is the result of the state simply putting more people in jail. Over the past three decades, the number of inmates in California facilities has increased eight times faster than size of the overall population.
The report notes that, while the average salaries for employees of the state's world-renowned higher education system have stagnated or even dropped with regard to inflation, prison guards have seen sustained salary increases. Correctional officers in California typically make somewhere between 50 and 90 percent more than comparable jobs in the rest of the country.
California Correctional Peace Officers Association spokesperson Ryan Sherman defended the high salaries. "Buying a house in the Bay Area is extremely expensive. There's a number of prisons in the Bay Area and so the officers need to be compensated appropriately in California," he explained to NBC Bay Area, noting that many prison employees have taken pay cuts in recent years. "[California Highway Patrol] officers are paid more than correctional officers and it's the same standards, same hiring practices they go through, so I don't know that they’re paid too much. I think they actually deserve more."
Prison guards aren't the only part of the state's penal system that has gotten considerably more expensive over time.
A 2009 investigation by the state's Legislative Analyst's Office noted that, over the previous decade, state spending per inmate has increased by two-thirds, largely due to a federal court order to improve prisoner health care, increased spending on rehab programs and the aforementioned employee compensation increases.
California's general fund is the sole source of state-level funding for its prison system, while special funds derived from specific funding sources are earmarked for channeling money into its education system. Due to the state's ongoing budget crisis, those special funds are increasingly being borrowed from to close the ever-growing hole in the general fund budget.
The report states that in 1980, over two-thirds of all the money spent on secondary education came from the state government. At present, that percentage has shrunk to about one-fourth.
As a result, the higher education system has been forced to rely more heavily on student tuition. In 2009, mass student protests erupted when the University of California's Board of Regents voted to hike tuition by 32 percent. The following year saw another eight percent tuition increase.
A 20 percent hike has been threatened for the next school year if California voters reject the tax measure pushed by Governor Jerry Brown.
Brown has also instituted a program called "realignment" designed to both cut the state's prison spending and comply with a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling mandating the California get serious about solving its dire prison overcrowding population.
Realignment is designed to shift non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual convicts (read: drug offenders) to county jails, instead of state penitentiaries, where local sheriffs have significantly more freedom in what methods they're able to employ.
Officials hope that realignment with not only improve the conditions inside California's jails, but also decrease their overall cost.
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