To cut state prison budget, start with perks for guards

California’s voters will soon consider two ballot initiatives that aim to reduce the state’s unsustainable spending on prisons. The cost of jail is punishing – and not just for the prisoners. Incarcerating an inmate runs an average of $47,000 a year.

That figure certainly is not chump change, but the folks behind bars are not the reason that the finances for California’s prison system are falling apart. Rather, the state’s unionized prison guards – specifically, their excessively generous pay and benefits – are to blame. Reforming the Golden State’s broke – and broken – correctional system should start by taking on the prison guards.

The crisis in California’s prisons was cast into stark relief last year when the U.S. Supreme Court found that the state was violating the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The high court ordered the state to release tens of thousands of prisoners or find another way to ease overcrowding in order to prevent “needless suffering and death.”

It’s not as if the prison system lacks sufficient funds. Roughly 10 percent of the state’s general fund – or about $9 billion a year – is devoted to Corrections and Rehabilitation expenditures. And California doesn’t just spend a lot on its prison system in aggregate; California’s per-capita prison costs are also 54 percent higher than the national average.

How could California spend top dollar on its prisons – and yet still subject inmates to inhumane living conditions?

Six-figure salaries for some prison guards provide a big chunk of the answer. Cadets at the prison-guard academy make about $3,000 a month. Once they get out, they can look forward to starting base salaries of up to $65,000. Prison guards get time-and-a-half whenever they clock in more than 40 hours a week. According to columnist Allysia Finley, one sergeant collected more than $200,000 in salary, overtime and bonus in 2010. And his income wasn’t even tops among his peers.

Guards can retire at the relatively young age of 55 – and receive 85 percent of their final year’s salary.

What’s more, politicians in Sacramento are all too willing to hand guards even more perks. Just last year, Gov. Jerry Brown approved a deal allowing guards to save an unlimited number of vacation days. These days could be cashed out upon retirement at a guard’s final pay rate.

It was, in other words, a pricey gift to prison guards – courtesy of taxpayers.

It’s no wonder that politicians are quick to lavish prison guards with even more extravagant benefits. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association – a prison-guard union – is a big political donor. It is unfortunately, a vicious circle – the unions give to the campaigns of politicians, who then feel compelled to give back to the unions.

California simply can’t afford sweetheart deals like these for its public employees. Recently, the city of San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy protection after being crippled by massive public-pension obligations. It’s the third California city to seek municipal bankruptcy protection in just the past two months.

The entire California Public Employees’ Retirement System – the nation’s largest pension fund – reported growth of just 1 percent for the fiscal year that ended in June – well below projections. Meanwhile, state and local unfunded pension liabilities total a staggering $135.8 billion, according to a recent report by the State Budget Crisis Task Force.

A deficit like that can’t be closed with higher taxes or tweaks to the state’s criminal code. In order to get California’s prison system – not to mention its overall budget – back on sustainable fiscal footing, state leaders must stand up to the prison guards and other public-employee unions and scale back their excessive benefits.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top