Five years ago, California prisons incarcerated 130,317 inmates supervised by 56,538 correctional employees collecting $4.985 billion in salaries. Since then, California has reduced the inmate population 26 percent to 96,157, but the number of correctional employees has increased 15 percent to 64,937 and after multiple salary increases granted by the governor and legislature, salary spending has climbed 39 percent to $6.949 billion on top of which another $4 billion is spent on pension and other benefits. Now, just two years after the last increase, we learn that yet another unnecessary increase is being contemplated.
Correctional officers have difficult jobs for which they are due our appreciation and appropriate compensation. But they should not be over-compensated, especially since prison spending comes out of the discretionary portion of the general fund. Every dollar spent on an unnecessary salary increase means a dollar less for CSU, UC, courts, parks and other discretionarily-funded programs. Do our elected state officials really believe that California should spend twice as much on the compensation and benefits of 64,937 employees as it spends on the 450,000 students served by California State University?
To add insult to injury, it looks to us like state officials colluded with prison guard unions to justify the latest salary increase by fabricating a compensation study that compares unequal occupations. Compensation for correctional officers in California should be compared to compensation for correctional officers in other states, not to deputy sheriffs in California, and adjusted for cost of living differences. A 2022 study does just that and found CA correctional officers’ wages are already more than 20% above the next highest state and more than double the median state.
This proposed contract is yet another example of the consequences of allowing recipients of state funds to make political donations to elected officials who allocate those funds. We wish California would ban such donations but unfortunately the law as it currently stands permits those donations to continue. That’s why we know it’s tough on elected officials to step up for residents and taxpayers in cases like these. But good governance is possible when there is political will, and here the legislature and governor have an opportunity to make a powerful statement about the state’s spending priorities.