It’s a safe bet that many of those criminals will once again commit crimes. About half of all paroled felons wind up back behind bars in two years. Which means that the crowding relief provided by their release will be temporary when they’re again locked up. State prisons might as well install revolving doors at the entrance. Meanwhile the rest of us might want to consider putting bars on our windows, turning our homes into pseudo-prisons while the convicts walk free.
Clearly, another solution must be found before the state starts the prisoner dump later this year. One promising solution was provided in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s state of the state speech in January in which he advocated privatizing state prisons. One of the main reasons why the state budget has been running multi-billion dollar deficits is because too much money is spent on state employee salaries and benefits. For example, state prison guards average about $70,000 in base salary and several thousand receive more than $100,000 annually due to overtime – on top of generous benefits that include seven weeks of combined vacation time and holidays along with pensions at nearly full salary for career employees.
Prison guards in other states earn about half of that. As a result, it costs $50,000 each year to house a prisoner in California, while it costs only $32,000 to house inmates in the country’s 10 largest states. And it could be done even cheaper if a private company were in charge. New Mexico houses 40 percent of its prisoners in institutions owned by companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which does the job at half the cost by paying private market wages and benefits. In addition, CCA representatives say they can build a prison in one year at a cost of $100 million while it requires the State of California $200 million and three years on average.
“If California’s prisons were privately run, it would save us billions of dollars a year,” said Schwarzenegger, who wants to plow the savings into subsidizing higher education. While that’s a worthwhile goal, we believe the money would be better spent providing enough prison space so that criminals aren’t released early to our neighborhoods, committing robberies and assaults, overtaxing depleted police departments and the courts – and winding up back in prison in a year or two.
Some of the leftover savings could be spent providing better support services for inmates to help transition them back to society, reducing the temptation to return to crime. But most of the savings should be returned to the hard-working, law-abiding, over-taxed citizens of California struggling to get by during this too-long recession.