California’s Prison Costs Rise With Aging, Mentally-Ill Inmate Population

March 25, 2020 Updated: March 25, 2020
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Graying inmates, aging prison infrastructure, and the increased need for mental health care in prisons have strained California’s budget in recent years, according to experts who advise the state government.

Scott Graves, director of research at the California Budget & Policy Center, is one of those experts. At a Feb. 20 senate budget hearing, he said the number of inmates who have mental health issues is on the rise.

And the state should consider the costs of that, both financially and socially—“Maybe prison isn’t the best place for them,” he said.

“We need to appropriately address the needs of people with mental illness. It is shocking that … almost three in 10 state prisoners are receiving mental health treatment,” Graves said. That’s more than a 150 percent increase from 2000, according to a Stanford Justice Advocacy Report.

Graves added, “State prisons are spectacularly inappropriate places for people with mental illness to be housed.”

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2020–21 budget, the state expects to spend $800 million on mental health care in state prisons. That’s more than a fifth of the total $3.6 billion projected health-related spending for state prisoners.

For at least a decade, California has spent more on prisoner health care annually than any other state, according to multiple Pew Charitable Trusts reports.

The most recent Pew report, from 2017, showed California’s health care spending per prisoner was just under $20,000 annually, compared to a national average of a little over $6,000.

Epoch Times Photo
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer opens the gate for a condemned inmate who is leaving the exercise yard at San Quentin State Prison’s death row in San Quentin, Calif., on Aug. 15, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With COVID-19 affecting health care everywhere, including in prisons, it’s unclear how that cost may grow.

California’s inmates are older by far, on average, than they’ve ever been. And it’s the elderly and people in close-quarters with others that are most vulnerable to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus.

At least five employees in state prisons, and one inmate, had tested positive for COVID-19 as of March 24. On that date, Newsom ordered a halt to the intake or transfer of inmates in prisons and youth correctional facilities; those inmates will instead remain in county custody for the next 30 days.

Rising Costs of Infrastructure

In fiscal 2018–19, each prisoner cost the state about $84,000 total, Graves told The Epoch Times in an email on March 17.

The 2019–20 estimated cost is about $89,000, and the projected 2020–21 cost is about $91,000, he said. He cautioned, however, that the estimated costs may be inaccurate and are often higher than actual costs.

Much of the rising cost can be attributed to an aging prison population that requires more geriatric and mental health care, according to state officials who spoke at the February senate hearing.

But another major cost is deteriorating prison infrastructure.

The proposed 2020–21 budget calls for an increase of $74 million over last year’s $13.4 billion to pay for ongoing and backlogged maintenance of correctional facilities and the purchase of new vehicles.

A Feb. 28 Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report noted that infrastructure at 12 of the oldest state prisons “has generally exceeded its expected useful life.”

These may require “over 150 infrastructure projects totaling over $11 billion.”

The state has 34 prisons, all of which require some infrastructure maintenance, though not as extreme as that needed at these oldest prisons.

Newsom has focused on decarceration to cut costs, emphasizing programs to support would-be inmates instead of keeping them in prisons. Part of that plan includes closing a state prison by 2024, reducing the prison population by about 4,300.

The LAO report suggested closing two state-run prisons instead of one, to cut back on infrastructure costs.

It suggested scaling back on Newsom’s initiative to close privately run prisons and instead close another deteriorating state-run facility.

Vivek Vanswanathan of the California Department of Finance said of the prison-closure plan during the hearing, “The governor has announced an intention to close a state prison if current population trends hold … but it’s impossible to say right now which prison might be slated for closure.”

The state is pushing ahead with its three-year plan to phase out privately run prisons by 2022, he said.

Epoch Times Photo
A view of San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., on March 13, 2019. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Graves generally supports Newsom’s decarceration plans and his emphasis instead on rehabilitation and community re-entry. But some of those plans have also had vocal opponents, including the California Police Chiefs Association.

Plans to Reduce Prison Population

“We’ve done a lot to advance decarceration in California, so kudos to the Golden State. We’re one of the leaders,” Graves said.

Based on research by organizations such as the Rand Corporation and Sentencing Project, Graves said, “other states have been reducing the number of correctional beds by tens of thousands over the last decade.”

Though some prisons have been closed in other states, he said it’s rare for a large, state-run prison to be shut down. Most of the prisons being phased out are smaller, minimum-term, medium-size facilities, Graves said. Privately run centers, work-release centers, and camps are being closed.

Graves cited state propositions, such 36, 47, and 57 as positive steps toward criminal justice reform.

Proposition 36 was passed by voters in 2012, changing the Three Strikes law. Previously, for example, if someone who had been convicted of two serious or violent crimes committed a third, non-serious or non-violent crime, that person would get a life sentence. That third-strike rule no longer applies.

Proposition 47 was passed by voters in 2014, reducing penalties for offenders convicted of non-serious, non-violent property and drug crimes.

Proposition 57 was passed by voters in 2016, reducing the amount of time inmates serve in prison, primarily by expanding inmate eligibility for release and sentence reduction.

But the California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) has said these penalty reductions have gone too far. CPCA supports a measure, called the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2020, that is expected to be on the November ballot to repeal parts of Propositions 47 and 57.

CPCA Chief Ronald Lawrence told The Epoch Times in a Dec. 18 interview that these propositions have made it harder for law enforcement to keep order in the state. Would-be prisoners are being released onto the street, he said. And with reduced penalties has come increased crime, he said.

Graves told the senate committee that “nibbling away” at these laws could prevent the state from achieving its goal of decarceration and closing a state prison. The Nov. 3 election, he said, will be a test to see if Californians are ready to stay the course on criminal justice reform.

The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.