Prop 47 reclassified several drug possession and petty theft crimes into misdemeanors. This change permitted state prison and county jail inmates to have their sentences adjusted in order to reflect this change. Ideally, this would decrease populations in both prisons and jails, decreases that would save both the state of California and California counties money. California counties fund and manage jails whereas the state of California manages prisons. Any money saved at the county level would be kept amongst the counties.
I. How savings were supposed to be calculated
The California Director of Finance calculates Prop 47 prison savings and transfers that money from the General Fund into the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.” (PDF page 7). Then, the money will be distributed to local communities. 25% of the savings will go to K-12 public schools’ truancy prevention programs, 65% will fund mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, and the remaining 10% will go to the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. (PDF page 8).
In January, Governor Brown released his proposed budget for the 2016–2017 year, reporting that there were 4,700 fewer inmates in California state prisons thanks to Prop 47. Accordingly, the Director of Finance calculated $29.3 million in savings that would be placed into the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.” But many felt that this amount is too small. The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), while agreeing with the 4,700-inmate decrease, disagreed with the governor’s estimate of how much housing a prisoner actually costs in California.
In his budget proposal, Governor Brown (via the Director of Finance) multiplied these 4,700 would-be prisoners by California’s nominal cost per prisoner. This nominal rate includes the cost of feeding and clothing each person but omits the costs of actually running prisons, which include the costs of building maintenance and staffing. In contrast, the LAO argues that the 4,700 would-be prisoners would have been housed in out-of-state contracted beds. It costs about $20,000 per contracted bed, but this “bed” price includes food, clothing, and prison management.
A. How Much Does One Prisoner Actually Cost?
In its review of the Governor’s proposed 2016-2017 budget, the LAO shows that the contract bed cost will decrease by $27.1 million due to population decreases. (PDF page 15). In addition, Prop 47 is projected to decrease the parolee population in the 2016-2017 year. (PDF page 15). Despite these savings, however, the price of healthcare as well as the general prison population is expected to rise in the next several years.
Under Governor Brown’s methodology, a loss in prison population does not make running a prison any cheaper. Staffing costs are likely to be the same, utility costs are likely the same, and the remaining prisoners still need decent healthcare. However, the LAO and other Prop 47 supporters disagree with this logic, arguing that fewer prisoners undoubtedly mean fewer meals, medical appointments, and general supervision that the state must pay for.
At the time of writing this post, the most current total prison population figure is 127,751 inmates. If the 4,700 would-be inmates remained in prison, the current number would be 132,451 inmates. The 4,700 fewer inmates make up 3.5% of the would-be total. This percentage appears minimal, which makes the debated cost-per-inmate even more essential to the ultimate total savings. Personally, I think a 3.5% population decrease would hardly lessen institutional costs, so I am more in favor of the governor’s logic.
Governor Brown will issue a revised budget this May, and it may include adjustments based on the LAO’s calculations.
II. California counties’ Prop 47 savings are not part of the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund
Unlike the state budget, each county controls how it calculates its savings and distributes its own spending. Counties need not report any savings acquired due to Prop 47’s changes. However, the County of Los Angeles is voluntarily issuing a Prop 47 impact report this year. Its previous 2015 report stated that Prop 47 has caused a 15% decrease in county jail population. (PDF page 6). In fact, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has found that Prop 47 caused a decrease in county jail population statewide.
A. Prop 47 has cut county jail populations
PPIC’s March 2016 report announced that the overall average daily jail population (ADP) of some California counties decreased by 9% between October 2014 and October 2015. (PDF page 6). PPIC used data from Fresno, Humboldt, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Stanislaus counties. (PDF page 7).
PPIC’s data appendix includes an additional four counties, Alameda, Contra Costa, Monterey, and Shasta counties. This appendix compares monthly ADP averages with PPIC data, data that tracks each individual’s movements through county jail systems. (PDF page 1). Both data systems report ADP decreases in all thirteen participating counties post-Prop 47.
The PPIC credits this population decrease to shorter misdemeanor sentences, more cite and releases, fewer Prop 47 arrests, and fewer Prop 47 prosecutions. (PDF pages 8-10). The PPIC suggests that arrests and prosecutions have decreased because law enforcement and prosecutors lack incentive to punish Prop 47 misdemeanants because the ability to punish has decreased, given that the maximum punishment for a misdemeanor offense is no more than 364 days in jail.
The Prop 47 population decrease has alleviated jail overcrowding. Before Prop 47, jail administrators often were forced to release individuals mid-sentence due to population crises. Now, jails do not have to resort to this emergency tactic. (PDF page 13).
B. Have the counties saved money?
Unfortunately, like the California state budget, whether or not population decreases have saved money depends on how counties calculate the cost per inmate. Like the state, counties have their own jail infrastructure and management costs, costs that stay high regardless of population decreases. Even if there were Prop 47 savings at the county level, counties have complete autonomy over how they spend their budget.
The ACLU’s Prop 47 progress report reveals how differently California counties have spent their Prop 47 savings. For example, San Francisco County was able to save 36% of its budget for non-sheriff, non-probation costs due to Prop 47’s population decrease. (PDF page 41). Fresno County only saved 12% of its budget. (PDF page 21). However, both the ACLU and the PPIC reports show that Fresno’s jail population decreased slightly more than San Francisco’s population post-Prop 47. (PPIC’s San Francisco data is on page 13, the Fresno data is on page 5).
III. Where do we go from here?
Because Prop 47’s ballot language delegated the duty to calculate savings to the Director of Finance, it is the Director of Finance’s word that carries the greatest weight. (PDF page 8). In his upcoming May revised budget, we will see if Governor Brown uses the Director of Finance’s $29.3 million figure or if he embraces the LAO’s conclusions that Prop 47’s savings are much higher. However, since the state controls how savings are calculated, and in fact controls the price of public incarceration (although it’s difficult to determine what that price is), Governor Brown can really say whatever he wants. If he reports that Prop 47’s savings are in fact greater, he’s probably appeasing critics rather than going back to recalculate savings.
IV. What Prop 47 really is all about:
What seems clear to me is that the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund was a sweet, conservative title given a progressive law—a law that would lessen punishment for drug users and petty thieves. Not all California voters want to “go easy” on drug-using criminals, but most Californians probably feel comfortable supporting schools. It is possible, given the institutional realities of prison management, that Prop 47 will never realize its estimated savings. But perhaps Prop 47’s authors knew that. Perhaps it was more important to protect a shunned minority, drug addicts, than to be completely honest with a complacent majority that votes “yes” on harmless-sounding proposals.