Prison Spending

Sacramento must prioritize education over more prison guard raises

GFC president David Crane penned the following op-ed in The OC Register on Friday, July 28, 2023.

As of June 30, 2018, California’s prisons (CDCR) incarcerated 130,317 inmates supervised by 56,538 correctional employees paid $4,985,455,000 in salaries.

By June 30, 2023, California had reduced the inmate population 26 percent to 96,157, but the number of correctional employees had increased 15 percent to 64,937, and salary spending on those employees had climbed 39 percent to $6,949,725,000 on top of which another $4 billion or so was spent on pension and other benefits.

Meanwhile, the very same Legislature and governor that approved that $10.9 billion in spending on correctional employees appropriated less than half as much, $5.3 billion, to the California State University (CSU) system that employs 54,000 faculty members and serves 460,000 students.

This enormous discrepancy should infuriate conservative and progressive voters alike. The state is both overspending on staffing and salaries for correctional employees and giving short shrift to young Californians working to advance themselves at our CSUs. To add insult to injury, a recent CalMatters report found that over $600 million of CDCR spending on rehabilitation programs was poorly managed and couldn’t demonstrate significant outcomes for those that participated.

How did we get here? It’s simple: politics. Governors from Jerry Brown and George Deukmajian to Pete Wilson and Gray Davis sought and gained the financial and political backing of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), topped off by particularly large concessions by Davis when he faced a recall election in 2003. Fast forward to 2021, when another recall election was underway and the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom ignored a California law requiring them to study the salaries of employees in comparable occupations before granting pay increases and approved a $500 million/year salary bump for prison guards.

Because they didn’t study compensation, we did, commissioning a survey of prison guard compensation nationwide. Here’s what we found: Even before the 2021 increase, California correctional officer wages were more than 20% above the next highest state ($88,710 in CA, followed by $72,990 in Massachusetts) and more than double the median for all U.S. states ($43,800). That’s after controlling for education, experience and cost of living.

California’s correctional officers do important and difficult work for which they should be appreciated, but that does not mean their jobs should be excessively compensated, especially when the consequences of that excessive spending fall disproportionately on discretionarily funded programs such as social services, CSU, UC, courts and parks. Fortunately, California is at an important crossroads that makes a pay revisit possible.

First, CCPOA’s $500 million pay-raise extension expired on July 2, meaning the Legislature and Governor can hold the line against excessive pay when back in session mid-August.

Second, the state has announced a plan to close some prisons and shift others from long-term incarceration to rehabilitation, giving Legislators and the Governor an opportunity to thoughtfully revisit officer responsibilities and pay.

Third, California expects to face multibillion dollar revenue shortfalls in the coming years, creating a stark choice between preserving the social services that help keep Californians out of prison versus higher pay for prison guards.

We urge state leaders to think about California’s well-being over the long term and prioritize higher education funding and social services over prison guard pay by holding the line on excessive compensation while also leveraging federal healthcare benefits for retired employees. Good governance is possible wherever there is political will, and here the Legislature and governor have an opportunity to make a powerful statement about the state’s spending priorities.

Write or call your state legislators today and urge them to support public services over prison guard salary increases.