California has long been criticized for its growing corrections expenditures, especially as General Fund spending on higher education has declined. The beginning of a new budget year is a good time to examine where the state now stands on spending in these two key areas.
California’s legislature recently adopted a budget for 2016–2017 that devotes $14.5 billion of General Fund revenue to higher education institutions, including the University of California, California State University, and California’s community college system. It allocates $10.6 billion for operations of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which is responsible for adults in state custody and parolees under state jurisdiction.
These budget allocations reflect a striking shift from California’s budget of forty years ago, when the state spent a larger share on higher education and a much smaller share on corrections. But by the 2008–2009 budget year, allocations to higher education (11.1%) and corrections (10.7%) were almost identical. In the years since, higher education spending has outpaced corrections in relative terms, largely because recent criminal justice reforms have drawn down the number of adults in state custody and on parole. Nonetheless, California spends more on corrections and less on higher education today, in relative terms, than at nearly any point in the past thirty years.
Despite these dramatic trends, spending in each area has actually increased alongside of growth in the populations served. Enrollment in higher education institutions has increased roughly 50% since the 1977–78 academic year; the budget has increased 65% (according to CPEC Fiscal Profiles). Until 2011’s realignment of California’s corrections responsibilities, the number of adults in CDCR custody had increased 555% and the budget increased 526% (CDCR Monthly Population Reports).
Clearly the costs of serving these two populations are different. On average, the cost of the CDCR population is much higher than the cost of students in higher education. Within each area, costs per person vary as well. The cost of educating a student at UC far exceeds the cost of doing so at a community college. Similarly, the cost of incarceration far exceeds the cost of supervising a parolee in the community. Although the per person cost of delivering services has risen over time, the dramatic increase in the prison population has been the key driver of the dramatic shift.
To reverse these trends, the state must identify and disseminate cost-effective strategies to reduce recidivism, further diminish California’s crime rates, and ultimately reduce the prison population enough to allow for the closure of state facilities or the elimination of in-state and out-of-state contract prison beds used to relieve overcrowding. Corrections realignment reduced state prison and parolee populations, but the anticipated savings from this policy shift have yet to materialize. Moreover, the most recent reports show a small uptick in the corrections population (CDCR Monthly Population Reports).
In the meantime, California needs to find ways to accommodate more students in its higher education systems—which it could do at relatively low cost by reducing time to degree, or at higher cost by increasing financial aid or expanding the number of slots for students. At the end of the day, ensuring that more of California’s youth attend and complete college will reap positive long-term benefits for the state, helping to meet the needs of the state’s future economy and create a brighter future for all Californians.